ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — It isn’t every day that Tiger Woods is just another guy grinding at the Old Course, a mortal hanging on in a gale force wind, just another name on a pairing sheet.
There was Woods on the first green at St. Andrews, three-putting for bogey with his new Nike flat stick, and then giving an encore three-putt at the second. He slammed his fairway wood to the turf on No. 5 when he pushed his approach next to a golf cart. An allergy sufferer, Woods rubbed his eyes, tweaked his nose, and walked with his hands in pockets to stay warm.
Tiger Woods looking for comfort at the home of golf.
It wasn’t until the fading light of a chilly Friday by the Firth of Forth that Woods sent a jolt into his round and his tournament by driving the Old Course’s par-4 18th hole, his ball nearly dropping into the cup before settling 20 feet past. In years past, Woods would have made the eagle putt, fist-pumped his way into the dusk, given Louis Oosthuizen and Mark Calcavecchia a fright, and grabbed the soul of the championship.
Instead, the putt missed high, Woods tapped in for birdie and a 1-over-par 73, and another chance to announce his full-throated return to the game of golf was lost.
Woods, who trails the leader, Oosthuizen, by eights shots, is still in the hunt for his 15th major, but has he ever worked harder to win? At St. Andrews in 2000 and 2005 in benign conditions, Woods took the claret jug by eight and five shots in a style that was nearly superhuman. He drove greens and poured in putts. He stomped on the golf course and everything on it.
That is not happening in 2010. It has been the year of Tiger as the nearly man.
Three months into his return from scandal, Woods’s game awaits the swagger that once defined him, save for that nine-hole flourish at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach during Saturday’s third round and that tee shot Friday on the 18th at St. Andrews.
The worst of his return to golf might be over (the popped-up drives, the missed cut at Quail Hollow, the withdrawal from the Players with an injured neck), but you get the sense that more days of grinding are ahead at St. Andrews and beyond. Tiger used to subdue a field just by entering the tournament. The search for the player who used to deliver a million golfing moments continues at the place where he once was an untouchable.
“I’m not exactly where I want to be,” Woods said of his score after his round, though he easily could have been talking about his larger golfing self. “I’m eight back, [but] today was a day I could have easily shot myself out of the tournament, especially the start I got off to. But I put it back together again and pieced together a pretty good round.”
Woods can at least hold onto that.
While others were blown away in the toughest side of the draw Friday (Rory McIlroy shot 80, John Daly a 76, Tom Watson a 75), Woods was among a group of guys who fought through the worst of the conditions. (Sean O’Hair shot 72, Ryo Ishikawa a 73).
Woods turned back those opening bogeys with birdies at the fifth and the ninth. He then bogeyed the 13th and 15th, but salvaged his round with his salvo at the last.
“If you’ve played professional golf long enough, or even amateur golf, you’re going to play in some bad stuff,” Woods said. “You’ve just got to deal with it. Everyone is out there, everyone is dealing with the wind, everyone is playing the same golf course.”
Woods is right, but that’s just the point. He’s become one of the pack, one of everyone. He’s still waiting for the moment to make him one of a kind.