Tiger’s ‘long process’ continues with fourth-place finish at Pebble Beach

December 10, 2011

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Even while the Sunday papers proclaimed that Tiger Woods was "prowling," "lurking" and "stalking," the world's most scrutinized player was three-putting, snap-hooking and searching for his ball.

One day after Woods dazzled with a five-under 66, he three-putted the first hole, bogeyed six of his first 12 and carded a 75 to tie for fourth place at the 110th U.S. Open. At three over for the tournament, Woods finished three behind the winner, Graeme McDowell.

"I feel like I put some pieces together this week, and as I've said, it's a process," Woods said. "I hit some shots I haven't made in a long time."

There was no debating that, but Woods also hit the kind of shots we've grown used to seeing him hit over the last three months. By the time he hit a wide-right drive on the par-5 18th hole Sunday, he had missed every which way and with a variety of different clubs.

The snap-hook: Woods hit a violent left-to-left tee shot with a 3-wood on the par-4 third hole, and let go of the club with both hands, dropping it to the ground. After an amazing bit of scrambling, he made a 20-footer to salvage par.

The pulled iron: Hitting iron for safety off the fourth tee, Woods pulled his shot into a pot bunker left of the fairway and bogeyed. He also pulled his iron shot off the tee on the par-3 12th hole — "just an awful swing," he said — leading to his sixth bogey in the first 12 holes.

The double-cross: Perhaps determined not to repeat the same mistake he'd made on No. 3, Woods lost his tee shot right on the par-5 sixth hole and his ball bounded over the cliff. Again he bogeyed, a particularly damaging mistake on a hole that played the easiest all week, with the field averaging nearly half a stroke under par.

The misclub: Woods seemed to blame his longtime caddie, Steve Williams, after he missed right with his 124-yard approach shot on the 10th hole.

"I fired at the pin on 10," Woods said. "Steve said, 'Take dead aim right at it,' and in my heart I said no. There was no chance. I have a sand wedge in my hand, and I can't play at that flag. You land the ball on the green."

Woods made news early in the week for blaming the poa annua greens (too bumpy), drawing a rebuttal from the USGA. The complaint also sounded odd given that Woods had won the 2000 Open by 15 strokes on the same greens.

But his week will be remembered more for the inspired play he conjured Saturday, when he made eight birdies in a magical 15-hole stretch, just as Phil Mickelson's week will be remembered for his own 66 on Friday.

Into the seventh month of what has surely been the darkest period of his life, Woods seemed to see daylight. If nothing else, he proved once again that even with his B or C game he still has the uncanny ability to rally at the majors, just as he did at the Masters in April.

Woods has long said that if every major were at the same course, he'd pick St. Andrews, where the golf world will turn its attention for the British Open in three weeks. There is every reason to think he will be in the mix to win.

Still, Tiger's game and behavior invite questions.

Was he blaming external factors like bumpy greens for his failure to win? Such rationalizing is right out of the Sergio Garcia playbook, but relatively new to Woods.

"Every putt I missed was from above the hole," he said after taking 31 putts. "Yesterday I made everything because it was all below the hole. These greens are bumpy enough where putts above the hole, it's just pot-luck."

Is Woods physically healthy? Given that he did not divulge his neck injury until withdrawing from the Players Championship in May, and given that he's had his left knee operated on four times, the question must be asked.

Why did he blame his 75 Sunday on strategic blunders? Was he hinting that it was caddie Williams's fault?

"I was telling Stevie we made three mental mistakes today," he told NBC's Mark Rolfing after the round, "and the only thing it cost us is a chance to win the U.S. Open."

You might say Woods made mental mistakes. You might also say he hit bad shots. He hit eight of 14 fairways and nine of 18 greens on Sunday, his worst totals all week.

For the tournament he hit 70% of the fairways, which ranked among the top 15 of those who made the cut, and 60% of the greens in regulation (T9). Those numbers were perhaps a sign that things are looking up, as was the fact that he made the cut and didn't WD with an injury.

A decade after Woods dismantled Pebble and dusted the next closest competitors by 15 strokes, he found some of the old magic on Saturday but seemed to lose it in his sleep.

Perhaps he'll retain it at the Old Course, the old Tiger Woods re-emerging amid 600 years of golfing ghosts.