This Tiger Woods, unfinished and imperfect, is even more compelling than before

This Tiger Woods, unfinished and imperfect, is even more compelling than before

Tiger Woods is trying to win his fourth U.S. Open and 15th major championship. <strong><a href="">More Photos</a></strong>
<strong>Kohjiro Kinno / SI</strong>

SAN FRANCISCO — This new Tiger Woods, human being, is so much more interesting than the old one, isn't he? Don't you just love this new Tiger Woods, who is so unpredictable, so different from day to day? He's fascinating.

He hit that beautiful shot into 18 in Saturday's gorgeous early-evening California light, but the damn ball didn't realize that its owner was Tiger Woods, and the shot didn't even have the decency to finish on the green.

Still, the ball was sitting up, and you thought he'd hole the little chip shot, didn't you? It wasn't a let-the-legend-grow moment, but it was the moment that could keep him in the tournament. He flubbed it. He rubbed his shoe immediately afterward like there was dog dung on it. When he talked to reporters a few minutes later — and give him credit for taking questions and actually answering them — he didn't look lost or confused or worried. He looked . . . pissed.

He's not the perfect tidy package he used to be. His Saturday trousers were kind of oddly long. He put on a sweater on 17 and the collar of his shirt got twisted up in its V-neck. Suddenly, he's a little more like . . . us.

The day-after-day thing is so hard in golf. Beau Hossler, the amateur golfer who's contending here, trailing Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk by four, has been doing it for three straight days, with rounds of 70, 73 and 70. How can that possibly be?

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The only way to explain it is that the Dude's 17 going on 37, and he looks like he's been playing in U.S. Opens forever. He has that weary walk that reminds you of a beat-up former college football player, circa 1966, who takes up golf at 25 and gets real good real fast because he's just such a good athlete. The kid's Saturday swing, with a million eyeballs on him, was just like his Thursday swing. That's a mark of the real jock, and to hell with body type. Beau brings to mind Nicklaus, the man-child, in the old black-and-white snaps. Beau's got faith.

Tiger did for years. For years, he swung the club with such assuredness. For his last six competitive rounds, four at the Memorial and two here, he swung the club with such certainty. But on Saturday at Olympic, when the stakes got really, really high, Tiger's faith was not there. All he's doing is trying out a new swing in the hardest tournament in all of golf.

On the range on Saturday, he was striping it. Sometimes a range session can tell you if a golfer has all cylinders working. The best example ever of that came when Tiger won the 2005 British Open at St. Andrews. Before the final round, he just killed it on the range, then went out and played a flawless round of golf. But now's a good a time to trot out this golden oldie: What's the longest walk in golf? The one from the practice tee to the first tee. That's when doubt sets in.

All Tiger was trying to do on Saturday was get himself in position to win his 15th major. It's been said a million times that you don't win a golf tournament on Saturday. I have the feeling Tiger's Saturday 75 takes him out of it. He's five behind on a course that has no birdie holes, not a single place where you can be aggressive.

Still, I can't wait to see what the new Tiger will do on Sunday. Only Tiger Woods can make a round of 75 seem interesting.

His caddie now is Joe LaCava, a totally different personality from his former caddie, Steve Williams, and Tiger is bringing him in for more reads than he ever did with Williams. The whole day had a reunion feel to it. LaCava used to work for Fred Couples, who was following Woods and playing partner Jim Furyk for much of the round. Furyk's caddie is Mike "Fluff" Cowan, who caddied for Woods when Tiger won the 1997 Masters by 12, when Beau Hossler was a toddler. Four old warhorses. Furyk is one of the few guys Tiger has actually obviously enjoyed having as a partner in Ryder Cups and President Cups. The only player you'd put ahead of him in that regard is Steve Stricker.

Anyway, back to the Saturday round. Woods looked unsettled. He was suddenly making more practice swings than he did on Thursday and Friday. He was throwing more grass in the wind. He stopped one swing at the top of his backswing. He backed off another swing due to a nearby roar for a player not named Tiger Woods. He moved photographers that he used to not even see.

Eight was a totally fascinating hole. Woods came off the seventh green while Furyk was still putting. His eyes were watery and tired. The surrounding hillsides were loaded with fans. He looked above them, at the clubhouse flags, and read the wind. He hit a gorgeous shot on the 200-yard par-3, somehow playing the downwind shot with a tissue-paper lightness. The birdie putt from maybe 25 feet was tracking and tracking, and back in the day it would have gone in. He twitched his right shoulder in a weird way before tapping the two-footer for par. Back in the day, those two-footers went in 100 percent of the time. He missed.

The birdie on nine was not the kind that rights the ship. When you drill the tee shot in the fairway, stiff the approach and make the putt, you right the ship. When you drive it in the left rough, slash one out and make a snake, you know in your golfing heart you got lucky. Tiger is nothing if not a realist.

"This is the U.S. Open," Tiger said when the day was done. "You just need to hang around."

I don't know if he's hanging around. He's probably not. But he's doing something truly interesting. He's playing golf like a guy who knows he doesn't have it all figured out. The man is more like us. Ain't it grand?