SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — How many times, over the past 20-plus years, has Tiger Woods shown up on the 1st tee on Thursday afternoon and, before hitting a single shot, found himself four or five or six shots back? And still — combining Seve-like talent with a journeyman's grind-it-out mentality — he was able to become Tiger Woods, winner of 79 Tour events.
Then came the windblown first round of this 118th U.S. Open. Woods had a 1:47 p.m. first-tee appointment with Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson, two players he will captain (as an assistant) at the Ryder Cup in September. Whether he will play beside them is another question. As for this early-summer Thursday, in this bastion of extreme wealth where seemingly anything can be bought, the conditions were nasty. You couldn't buy your way out of this wind.
Yes, Ian Poulter had, impressively, made it around in 69, one under par. So Woods trailed him by one before he played his first shot. But some of the others Woods would have to beat to win his 15th major were en route to a number. Phil Mickelson finished with 77. Jordan Spieth, 78. Jason Day, 79. Rory McIlroy, 80. As the saying goes, every shot makes somebody happy. Tiger Woods was 10 shots ahead of Rory McIlroy without hitting a shot.
He showed up in the dusty player parking lot in his USGA-issued Lexus at 12:20 p.m., with his girlfriend, Erica Herman and his caddie, Joe LaCava. He had a good session on the crowded practice putting green, barely acknowledging the players around him, including Johnson. A series of perfect pitches. Textbook swings on the driving range. Then — lo and behold! — a tee shot on one that found the middle of the fairway! He's missed a lot of first fairways over the years, though typically with a driver, not an iron, which is what he used on Thursday.
And then came the triple bogey heard ‘round the Hamptons. His second shot, not difficult and straight into the wind, flew the green from 150 yards. Three chips, two putts and one F-bomb later, he had opened with a 7 on a par-4 where the scoring average for the day was 4.18. Woods certainly didn't look nervous playing that 1st hole. You can still contend for a U.S. Open title even if you blow your second shot over the first green of the first round, as Davis Love III showed in 1995. Woods was surely annoyed, but not panicked at that point. Not his first rodeo, etc.
But then something happened that could ruin your day, if not your week and your chance to win your 15th major championship. From a semi-fluffy lie, his third shot did not hold the green. He played his fourth shot off a tight lie, running it up a hill with a putter. Ignobly, it came back to greet him. He putted it again, and this time his ball's final resting place was the green. Two putts later and there it was, the opening 7. All that work, all that promise — vanished. The game is as cruel to them as it is to us.
He three-putted the par-3 2nd from over the green. Four over through two. When he made a par on the 3rd, some of the clapping for him — this being New York — sounded sarcastic.
"C'mon, Tie-guh," a fan called out in the local patios.
"Cat!" said another, with back-page economy.
The cat rallied. He really did. Woods even walked and talked with Johnson at times, which was semi-amazing, because Woods doesn't have any use for on-course chit-chat in the best of times. The pitch he played for his third shot to the high plateau that is the green of the par-4 10th was the golf shot as artwork. He was crawling his way back to respectability. Through 12 holes, he was four over for the day, with the triple. He was in position to beat Phil Mickelson.
Then came back-to-back double bogeys on 13, a short par-4, and 14, a long one, which feature several slashes out of the hay (aka fescue) and one choice "goddamn it." We cite the profane outbursts only for what they show: a man who cares.
Woods's 78 for the day left him in 102nd place. Can he still make the 1930-sounding cut, which could easily be in the north of 150? Of course he could. He continues to be Tiger Woods. You don't lose the grind-it-out-gene overnight. It's in his DNA. Could he still top-10 and get himself some Ryder Cup points? Yes. Could he win? Let's not go crazy here.
In his post-round comments — and let's give a the man a public thank-you for doing what Mickelson did not — Woods said the course went from one, in calm conditions, that offered seven or eight birdie opportunities to a golf course as a survival test. He noted that he had arrived on a course that has seen "lots and lots of bogeys and others. My goal was to not make any others. I made three of them."
The other 15 were pretty good.
But he's not four or five or six back, as he sometimes is early on Thursday afternoons. Tiger Woods is nine back on Thursday night. That's new territory, for him and for us. The man is in uncharted waters.