The Open 2019: Tiger Woods’ dismal first round a reminder that he’s playing on borrowed time

July 18, 2019

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — The requiem came in a whisper. A small group had gathered by the 9th green of Royal Portrush to pay their respects to Tiger Woods’s dearly departed Open chances. Roger Maltbie, in a moment of candor between TV takes, said softly what all the mourners were feeling: “There’s nothing there. He can’t hit it in the fairway and he can’t hit it out of this stuff” — he ran his foot through the gnarly rough — “so how long can this last?”

The mood was as gloomy as the dark skies. Tiger’s round had begun with a snipey smother-pull stinger that didn’t sting. More dispiriting was the wince that followed. It was more than metaphysical. Woods had looked stiff and creaky in his last start, at foggy Pebble Beach. A month with no competitive golf had followed, leading to questions about the state of the reconstituted spine. (In little moments of candor Woods has hinted at the physical toll of his Masters victory.) Now, after a long flight across the ocean, how would he fare at cold, wind-blown Portrush? That wince said it all, and it only got worse from there.

Woods followed his drive on the 1st hole with a tentative swing out of the weeds, coming up miles short of the green, though he saved par with a crafty bunker shot. On the downwind par-5 2nd — the easiest hole on the course — Woods drove into a fairway bunker and had to scramble for par, giving up half a shot to the field.

After a routine par on 3 — was it me or did it take him a really long time to bend down to tee up his ball? — Tiger had a long wait on the 4th tee box. He did a series of stretches and gyrations, looking like an old man at the YMCA trying to get loose before aqua-aerobics. The 5th hole is when Woods’ game began to seize up. While plenty of other players were having a go at this downhill par-4, Woods laid up to an awkward yardage, leaving a half-wedge that had no zip and trickled to the back of the green. A three-putt bogey ensued.

At the par-3 6th, Tiger produced a strike so hollow — to use his favorite term of disparagement — his ball helplessly drifted left on the wind. That left a tough chip … followed by another. Suddenly, Woods faced a do-or-die 6-footer to save bogey. As he waited to putt, the skies darkened, and by the time Woods stood over his ball a cold, hard rain was falling. The crowd sensed the magnitude of the moment and it was dead still, the only sound the pitter-patter of the raindrops falling upon umbrellas. Woods blew the putt and trudged to the next tee, his face clouded with disgust. “Wasn’t hitting it solid,” he said afterward. “Everything was off the heel. Just trying to scrape it around.”

On the par-5 7th he lashed at his drive but could not power it through the crosswind. Woods was lucky to draw a good lie in the first cut, but he made another tentative swing and thinned his ball into a dune a dozen yards in front of him. From there it was an almighty struggle to save bogey and suddenly an awful realization set in: Tiger might not beat Rory’s ghastly 79.

The 9th hole followed the depressingly familiar pattern — a drive into the fescue and a meek effort to extract it. Another bogey followed and Woods turned in 41. His bid was over, and Tiger wasn’t even trying to pretend otherwise; when he rolled in a long putt on 15 for his only birdie of the day he raised his arms in mock triumph. “That’s just the nature of the [back] procedure that I had,” he said. “I’m going to have days like this, and got to fight through it. And I fought through it. Unfortunately, I did not post a very good score.” In the end Woods shot 78 — barely edging the woebegone McIlroy — for his worst opening round ever at the Open, two strokes worse than the 76 at the Old Course in 2015, when Tiger’s body and spirit were broken by injuries, chip yips and ennui.

The triumph at the Masters erased all of that but can’t change the glum reality that Woods is a man playing on borrowed time. His light schedule this summer left him unprepared for the rigors of the major-championship tests but, to hear him tell it on Thursday, there was no other way to get to the starting line. “One of the reasons why I’m playing less tournaments this year is that I can hopefully prolong my career, and be out here for a little bit longer,” Woods said. After his short scrum with reporters he was heading to the physio for treatment on his back. But Tiger ended a disappointing day with a parting thought more troubling than one bad round: “Just the way it is,” he said. “Just the way it’s going to be.”