PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla., May 11 — There was a baby shower Tuesday night for Elin Nordegren, aka Mrs. Tiger Woods, at the luxurious, beachfront Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. Actually Elin, who is due July 3, had a co-shower with Swede Richard S. Johnson's wife, Linda, who is due next month and in her last week of traveling the Tour with her husband.
For a while Friday it appeared that the shower might have to suffice as the week's highlight for the family Woods. With Elin following on foot as well as Henrik Stenson's wife, Emma Lofgren, who is also due on July 3, Woods played as if he was already thinking of what color to paint the nursery. After starting his round on the front nine and going out in one-over 37, Tiger missed a seven-footer for birdie on the 558-yard, par-5 11th hole.
On the 358-yard 12th, he showed why his critics are wondering about the state of his game. Woods sliced his 3-wood tee shot into the rough, punched out too far left with his second and watched his ball nestle into an impossible position: in the rough on a severe downslope to a left pin. Since when did Woods start leaving himself in such places?
With virtually no shot at chipping it close, he swung and watched his ball roll 20 feet past the pin, then missed his par putt. The bogey put him at five-over, a shot outside the projected cut line. He made birdie at the cupcake, 523-yard 16th hole, where he easily hit the green in two and two-putted from the back of the green. At the time, that seemed to save him from an early exit, but the cut ended up being five over.
"For 36 holes, I've only made two birdies," Woods said. "Not very good."
No, not very good. Woods faulted his putting for his poor play, saying that with the radically reconfigured course, the greens are slower than he remembers them.
"It's hard to make yourself hit the putts that hard," he added, "especially if you putt by memory like a lot of times I do here."
But to watch him play his final nine holes Friday was to realize that it's more complicated than that. On this day, at least, his nemesis was not the usual suspect, the driver. As usual, he made liberal use of the 3-wood, but he ripped the driver 334 yards straight down the par-5 11th hole, 307 yards straight down the middle of the 15th fairway, and 324 yards reasonably straight down the right-to-left 16th hole. The ball didn't hook enough and barely trickled into the right rough, but it was a serviceable lie and, just 214 yards from the hole, set up his easy birdie. He hit picture-perfect 3-woods on the par-4 10th (275 yards) and 18th holes (292 yards).
No, the problem for Woods was not his woods but his irons, specifically his distance control with those irons. On 10, from 139 yards to a back pin, he seemed torn between two clubs and hit it short, 31 feet, 10 inches from the hole. On 11, trying to hit the green in two from 212 yards, he hit a shot that never had a chance, bailing out right into the bunker. And so it went. On 16 he blew his second shot 64 feet past the pin, leaving himself a tricky two-putt for birdie. (Mickelson, by contrast, hit his 207-yard second to within seven feet and made eagle.)
On 17, Woods hit what should have been a 137-yard shot 130 yards and left himself on the wrong (front) tier. But his worst iron swing of the day came on 18. Faced with 160 yards to the pin from the middle of the fairway, he again bailed out right and was clearly disgusted with himself. His ball rolled into the shaved collection area, forcing him to get up-and-down to make it to the weekend.
Woods is indeed struggling with his putts, but the reason isn't only the slow greens. He's simply not hitting the ball close enough to the hole. Only twice on the back nine did Woods resemble himself with an iron in his hands: on the tricky, 182-yard, par-3 13th hole, when he hit his tee shot to within 20 feet, and on the 449-yard, par-4 15th, when he hit his 147-yard approach to 13 feet left of the stick. He missed both birdie putts.
It was enough to make one wonder if he's injured, in light of his visible wince while winning the Wachovia Championship last week. "Just getting old, bro," Woods said earlier this week when asked about the show of pain in Charlotte, N.C. Is there more going on here than Woods is willing to share?
He faulted his putting Thursday, as well, but at least one insider who watched the round unfold said the world No. 1 hit the ball terribly. One suspects no one is more aware of this than Woods, who adjourned to the practice range after a brief Q&A session with the press Friday. Nine strokes behind Phil Mickelson, he will need to do more than putt better to make anything happen this weekend.