ARDMORE, Pa. — As Tiger Woods prepared to play his approach from the 18th fairway in the second round of the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club's East Course, a cluster of photographers nestled in the rough behind him, no doubt hoping for their Hy Peskin moment.
Woods' ball wasn't on the same spot from which Ben Hogan hit his storied 1-iron at the 1950 U.S. Open, a moment immortalized by Peskin's lense. But it was close, about 20 yards behind the plaque that commemorates that hallowed piece of turf. The circumstances, of course, were also far less dramatic: Woods was on his just his eighth hole of the second round, and at three-over-par, he was trailing Phil Mickelson by six strokes. But still, if a photographer could catch Woods in the "Hogan pose," with a backdrop of blue skies, fluttering flags, and a packed grandstand, it would be, in photographers' parlance, a real keeper.
It wasn't to be. Instead of holding his follow-through and staring down the shot, Woods exhibited a full catalog of body language. He leaned to the right, imploring his ball to drift back in that direction. His knees buckled. He bent over. He swatted his iron in disgust. He stared up at the trees and shook his head; the wind had fooled him. His ball, meanwhile, ran through the green, leaving him a sticky chip from the rough that led to a two-putt bogey.
Woods might still have his Hogan moment at this 113th U.S. Open. But after a long, demanding, wince-filled day at Merion that began at 7:11 a.m. with the eight-hole conclusion of his first round and ended more than eight hours later when he signed for a hard-fought, second-round 70, the man has some work to do. And he will have to do it with an injured left elbow.
Woods revealed Friday that he first tweaked the elbow during the Players Championship in May. He appeared to re-aggravate the injury hitting from the rough Thursday on the East Course's first hole, and again on the fifth hole, and it showed no signs of improvement a day later. While finishing up his first round Friday morning, Woods doubled over in pain after extracting a ball from the rough on the 11th hole. When asked after the round by ESPN's Tom Rinaldi what caused him to react in such a manner, Woods offered a concise answer, even by his own terse standards: "Pain."
On his second hole of the second round — the par-4 12th — Woods hit a wedge from the left rough, then, obviously hurting, tucked his left wrist behind his back. Most of his grimaces came after shots from the rough, but after his tee shot at the par-4 eighth, his left hand dropped off the club and again he shook his left arm trying to ease the pain. That shot landed in the left rough, and more wincing and arm-grabbing followed after the ensuing shot.
Rory McIlroy, one of Woods's playing partners, was asked whether he had a sense for how much pain Woods was in. "I haven't seen anything wrong with him," McIlroy said, which means the Irishman either spent most of the day with his head buried in Merion's knee-high fescue (he didn't), or he was doing his famously curt Nike stablemate a solid by keeping his trap shut.
At times, Woods's afternoon recalled the 2008 U.S. Open, where Woods hobbled and flinched his way around Torrey Pines en route to his 14th major title. It was also an indication that in Woods's quest for 18 major titles — and, remember, it's been five full years since his last major win — the 37-year-old's most formidable opponent might be his own brittle body: the ruptured ACL, the fractured tibia, the ruptured Achilles, the inflamed neck joint, and now the tweaked elbow.
But now back to our regularly scheduled programming: Woods is not out of this thing. Not by a long shot. When he completed his second round, at 3-over for the tournament, just two players were under par: Phil Mickelson (-3) and Nicolas Colsaerts (-1), and neither of those players had even begun his second round. Woods has hung around by hitting fairways (71 percent of them through 36 holes) and greens (61 percent), and by avoiding big numbers (no doubles or worse). And by … well, let's face it — no one else is exactly burning up this mighty-mite layout.
"Unless you played practice rounds out here and you've seen the golf course, you don't realize how difficult it is," Woods said after his second round. "Because the short holes are short, but if you miss the fairway, you can't get the ball on the green. And the longer holes are brutal. And this is probably the stiffest test of par 3s that we ever face. And then they've thrown some of the pin locations in that they have and it's really tough."
When he arrived on the 11th tee, his first hole of the second round, Woods's mud-splattered pants were a reminder that he and his playing partners, McIlroy and Adam Scott, already had half-a-day's work under their belts. McIlroy jumped out to a hot start, birdieing the 11th and 12th, but Woods took longer to get going, birdieing the flip-wedge par-3 13th, but then giving back a shot at both the par-4 14th, where he three-putted after leaving his 30-footer for birdie woefully short, and par-4 18th. Woods countered with birdies at the East Course's only par 5s — Nos. 2 and 4 — then made another bogey at the par-4 seventh where he left himself short-sided in some clumpy rough.
"It's one of those shots where you're either going to flub it or you're going to hit it 20 feet past," Woods said. "I took the chance of putting speed in, and I got a big chunk down and the golf ball didn't go anywhere."
Fortunately for Woods, the leaders didn't go anywhere either. Mickelson, the 18-hole leader, was 1-over through five holes in the second round. Luke Donald, who began the second round a shot behind Mickelson, shot a two-over 72 to drop to even for the tournament. Matthew Goggin, who was tied with Donald, followed his 68 with a 74. Merion is winning. Hell, after all the talk of U.S. Open scoring records falling this week, even-par might be good enough to win.
"You just don't ever know what the winning score is going to be," Woods said. "You don't know if the guys are going to come back. We have a long way to go, and these conditions aren't going to get any easier. They're going to get more difficult. As the fairway starts drying out, the ball is going to pick up mud, and you're going to get bad breaks."
When asked whether he likes his chances, Woods was less expansive.
"Yes," he said.