PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. Tiger Woods is running out of holes in this muscular United States Open at Pebble Beach, his game stuck in the kind of rut that has marked his return to golf. On a chilly morning on the Monterey Peninsula, Woods's good shots often gave way to poor ones, a pattern that led to a one-over-par 72 in the second round that left him seven shots behind the leader, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.
After two quick birdies on the back nine (he began his round on the 10th hole), Woods began backsliding. A bogey on the par-4 second hole from a fairway bunker. Another on the par-4 third, thanks to a crooked tee shot that barely stayed on the property. At the midway point of the 110th U.S. Open, Woods may not be out of the championship, but he is several birdies away from placing pressure on the leaders.
"I'm going to have to make a few more birdies," Woods said after his round. "I think I only made, what, three in the first two days? And I'm going to have to make a few more over the weekend in order to win."
In his three previous U.S. Open wins in 2000 at Pebble, in 2002 at Bethpage Black, in 2008 at Torrey Pines he was never this far out of the lead midway through the championship. His biggest 36-hole comeback in a major came at the 2005 Masters, where he made up a six-shot deficit.
In each of his U.S. Open triumphs, his putting might have been his greatest asset, but it has betrayed him through two rounds at Pebble. Woods took 34 putts on Thursday and 29 more Friday, middling stats for Woods. He hit 71.4 percent of Pebble's fairways on Thursday and Friday, but only 66.7 percent of greens in regulation Thursday and 61.1 percent Friday, placing even greater pressure on his putting stroke.
"I just need to keep progressing and keep moving my way up the board," Woods said. "It's a long haul. The U.S. Open is not going to get easier as the week goes on, especially on the weekend. This is a tournament where you don't win it with one round, but you can lose it with one round."
In years past, no one putted bumpy, poa annua greens better than Woods, but he is clearly searching for the smooth stroke that blew away the 2000 U.S. Open field by 15 shots here.
Ernie Els, who finished second to Woods in 2000, played with Woods both Thursday and Friday.
"I think he's very close," Els said of Woods. "I think his ball-striking was pretty good the last two days. His short game is pretty sharp. He just didn't make enough putts. He's skimming the hole, [but] nothing looks out of the ordinary. I think it's only a matter of time before he starts getting in his stride."
Woods better hurry. Pebble Beach will only get trickier going forward. And Woods, once golf's greatest lock and its best putter, is running out of time.