UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – He did not play like the 195th ranked player in the world; he played worse than that. Someone said of his all-black outfit that he had dressed for his own funeral.
And yet if you could avert your eyes from the walking standard-bearer, Tiger Woods still looked like Tiger Woods as he strode down the fairway at the par-4 16th hole on day one at the 115th U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. It was 7 p.m. and the low clouds over Puget Sound cast a silver light on the water. Woods had split the fairway, just behind his playing partners Rickie Fowler and Louis Oosthuizen, who had done the same.
“Three of the best drives here all day,” a hole marshal said, which only reaffirmed the value of not caring too much. As always Woods was followed by two uniformed police officers, who glared out into the crowd.
“Tiger’s done,” his friend answered.
“Tiger’s 10 over par!”
“Last time I saw a meltdown like that was my own game.”
“It’s weird to watch him on the range and he doesn’t look that bad.”
Woods hit his sand wedge second shot up to the green and the crowd roared as his ball spun to within a foot of the pin. He would tap in for an easy birdie to get back to 9 over, but it was too little, too late. And he would obliterate any lingering good feelings from his birdie two holes later, when he topped his 3-wood second shot from the middle of the 18th fairway.
“He duffed it,” Fox’s Joe Buck said on the network’s first day of covering the U.S. Open.
“I don’t know what to say,” lead analyst Greg Norman said, saying a lot.
The score also spoke volumes. Woods bogeyed the par-5 finisher and signed for an 80, 15 shots behind co-leaders Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson, and better than just two of the 156 players in the field: playing partner Fowler (81) and New Hampshire club pro Rich Berberian Jr. (83).
“Not very happy, that's for sure,” Woods said afterward. “It was a tough day. Got off to a bad start. I stuck that 6-iron in the ground on the first hole, and then just couldn't quite get it turned around today.
What was the low point? Was it when Woods, having done the hard part by splitting the first fairway, badly pulled his 6-iron approach en route to a bogey? Was it when he was attempting to hack out of the right rough on the par-5 8th hole when his club went flying high above his head and landed in the tall grass behind him? (Woods salvaged a par on the hole.) Or was the low point when he cold topped his 3-wood after waiting for the green to clear so he could have a go at the green in two on the par-5 18th hole? His ball never got airborne and trickled into a deep pot bunker called “basement.”
“They were laughing at Tiger Woods as he walked into that pot bunker at 18,” Buck said of the fans at Chambers, who may have been too stunned to do much else. Here was Mozart and he couldn’t even play chopsticks. Not only that, the Woods threesome would go a combined 28 over par, with Woods and Fowler in 152nd and 155th place, respectively.
“The bright side is at least I kicked Rickie’s butt today,” Woods said.
At the Memorial two weeks ago, he rallied to make the cut only to shoot a ghastly third-round 85 and finish last. That means the winner of 14 majors and 79 PGA Tour events overall not only shot his second worst score in a major Thursday—he shot an 81 in a storm at the 2002 British Open at Muirfield—he has now shot in the 80s in two of his last three rounds.
Only Woods knows what exactly he is working on under swing coach Chris Como, with whom he has worked since late last year. But even Tiger might not know the answer to the most vexing question of all, whether he is getting closer or further apart from the guy who could actually play this game.
“I’ve gone through tough phases in every one of these things,” Woods said of his swing changes. “And I’ve come out okay on the other side.
“I haven't played enough,” he added. “I haven’t had a rhythm to play. I didn't play much last year and I haven't played much this year. Knee surgeries are pretty easy compared to a back surgery, the recovery time. And for some reason, it's just a lot harder dealing with a nerve than a joint.”
Does any of that make sense? Does it ever? The real Tiger Woods remains missing in action; it’s anyone’s guess when he will return.