ARDMORE, Pa. — Sunday was not only Father's Day and Phil Mickelson's birthday, it was also a special anniversary for Tiger Woods. He didn't do much to celebrate.
This day marked five years since Woods' last major title, his epic, broken-leg U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines. Time flies, doesn't it? The 2013 U.S. Open at venerable, old-school Merion was supposed to be the week that everything came together for Tiger. He had already won four titles this season. He was back to No. 1. His putting stroke was pure. He wouldn't need to hit driver. Ben Hogan won a Grand Slam here. The moon was in a crescent phase. Everything was in place.
Sunday was to be the day Woods faced an accomplished rival in the final pairing in front of a national television audience. Instead, he teed off at 12:04 p.m. on basic cable, and his playing partner was a journeyman pro named Matt Bettencourt. Tiger Woods is not supposed to play final rounds of major championships at noon alongside Matt Bettencourt. This was not a good week.
"There's always a lesson to be learned in every tournament whether you win or lose," Woods said after signing for a 74 to finish 13-over for the event, his worst score at a major as a pro. "I'll look back at the things I did right and the things I did wrong."
Where did it go wrong? Woods didn't specify, but the answer lies in the stats. He hit 70 percent of his fairways and 65 percent of the greens in regulation. Not sterling, but you can probably contend at a U.S. Open with those numbers. He also took 128 putts and had five three-jacks. Those are digits that lead to noon tee times on Sundays.
"I struggled with the speed, especially right around the hole," Woods said. "Putts were breaking a lot more, I gave it a little more break and then it would hang. That's kind of the way it was this week."
The week started going haywire for Woods before he even attempted his first putt. On his opening hole of the tournament, Woods winced while extracting his ball from a thick patch of rough on his approach shot to green. Later he said that he'd aggravated an elbow injury he first suffered at the Players Championship. He grimaced off and on for the next four rounds.
And that makes you wonder, doesn't it? Maybe, just maybe, Woods is hurt worse than he's letting on, and that aching elbow prevented him from playing his best this week. You can't rule it out. In 2008 at Torrey, Woods didn't reveal that his leg was fractured and tendons were severed until after he had vanquished Rocco Mediate and collected his trophy. It's always easy to overreact to every little blip and blap that happens with Tiger, and the thoughtless, knee-jerk summation from this week is that Tiger's body is shot and his career toast, which is of course not true. But here's something that is absolute fact: with each passing major Tiger's journey to Jack's record of 18 majors becomes a little more arduous, and another major just passed.
Everyone who watches Woods in person has a story from it, so here's one more: On Saturday afternoon Woods was playing poorly and out of contention when he stepped to the tee on the long, downhill par-3 17th hole. His playing partners, Rory McIlroy and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, had already hit onto the green. Woods took a lash, and at impact the ball came out at a strange angle and appeared to be heading straight for the towering grandstands left of the green. Fans in those seats gasped and recoiled, bracing for impact. A swoosh-stamped missile was surely about to slam into some poor soul. But it turned out that Woods had successfully played a sweeping cut shot, and his ball carved through the air before plunking down in the middle of the putting surface. The crowd let out a surprised gasp, then a cheer. And here's the thing: I think five years ago those fans never would've flinched when Woods first hit that tee shot — they would've kept their eyes on the center of the green all along. I know I would've.
On Sunday I went back to the 17th and watched Tiger come home. He hit another nice tee shot, this time without the cut spin, and as he approached the green a couple of yahoos with beers in their hands hollered in unison, "We're here for you, Bettencourt!" The journeyman pro laughed. Woods didn't blink. He made his par, and another on 18, and that was that. Five years and counting.