Tiger Woods struggles again at Shinnecock Hills, but there's still a silver lining

Tiger Woods struggles again at Shinnecock Hills, but there’s still a silver lining

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – For a while, it was tough to stand out there in the cold rain and maintain high spirits. Tiger Woods, head down, trudged along the knolls Friday morning, moving closer with each step to the players’ parking lot and life beyond the gates of Shinnecock Hills and this 118th U.S. Open. Each missed putt took him farther beyond the cut line. The forecast failed to call for showers, and everyone outside of players and caddies was underdressed. (You never want to get caught one layer short on Long Island.) But later, after drying out, it became much easier to crystalize reasons for optimism for Tiger Woods, present and future. Seriously! Grab a fresh pair of socks and read on.

First, the bad. Woods was not good this week. Wayward drives, shaky irons. Missed more than half his greens in regulation (16 of 36, 44%). Chips and pitches and flops that, well, flopped. Blew several putts. Just didn’t have it. Woods came nowhere close to contending at this U.S. Open. On Friday he shot 72 for a two-day total of 10 over. Soon he’ll board his yacht at a nearby port and set sail for east Florida. Anchor’s away.

“I’m not very happy with the way I played and the way I putted,” Woods said Friday afternoon. “I’m 10 over par. So, I don’t know how you can be too happy and too excited about 10 over par.”

You can point to several areas where it went wrong. His putting stroke wasn’t ready for Shinnecock’s slick, slopey surfaces. Perhaps he should’ve hit more drivers and fewer stingers and stayed aggressive. Maybe he should’ve left his boat back in Jupiter and taken his jet to the Hamptons. Perhaps he could’ve tried an amphibious seaplane.

But really, you can just go straight to the 1st hole, a benign (by Shinnecock standards) par 4, straight down the hill off the back of the club’s stately, two-story clubhouse. It’s currently playing as the fourth-easiest hole of the week. Woods hit an iron into that fairway in the sunshine on Thursday, and he found the short grass again in the rain on Friday. On Thursday he bombed his approach over the green and into trouble, and on Friday he shoved his second shot into another mess – a tangled patch of grass right of the green and behind a sand trap. On Thursday he took three sloppy shots around the green to reach the putting surface. On Friday he took two more after his hack from the hay scooted across the green and down the slope. In two spins through that opening hole, Woods played it in five over.

“I didn’t play the first and second hole very well – how about that?” Woods said. “It was tough out there early. Wind was blowing. I was kind of hanging in there until, unfortunately, first and second hole kind of derailed it.”

Once No. 1 wrecked Woods’s scorecard for the second straight day, it was all over but the shouting. “Do it for the dinghy!” one fan hollered – twice – as Woods dug in for his tee shot on No. 2. There it was, the shouting.

But Woods played hard, as he always does, and even closed with two birdies. And that’s where we turn to the positive. Did anyone think, one year ago when the mugshot taken after his DUI arrest was still splashed in the headlines, that Woods would compete here at Shinnecock Hills? Or, when he had two discs fused and only began taking full swings in October, that he would become one of the top five or so betting favorites entering this week? Or that his World Ranking would climb from deep in the 600s to 80th? Or that he would become a virtual lock to play on the U.S. Ryder Cup team in Paris this fall, and not merely don an earpiece as an assistant captain? When Woods took his first question in his post-round press conference Friday afternoon, the one about his poor play on the opening holes, he stood on the platform, hands on hips, and actually smiled. He knows.

This week Woods also had a close look at where he hopes this comeback ultimately leads. He played those 36 holes alongside tournament-leader Dustin Johnson, who strutted and freewheeled up and down the hills while shooting 69-67. “Dustin was in complete control of what he’s doing,” Woods said. Tiger once made it look easy like DJ, but not anymore. With Shinny set up to punish weaknesses, Johnson is displaying none whatsoever and could end up winning this thing by five shots and maybe more. When Johnson dropped a birdie putt on the tricky par-3 11th, he gave a mini-fist pump with about 5% of the oomph of the old Tiger move. But in that moment he took the lead alone, which was 100% vintage T-Dub. Johnson also currently works with Butch Harmon, who was Woods’s coach when he stacked up major trophies in the early 2000s.

Anyway, that was then. DJ is now. But as long as Tiger’s fused back holds up the comeback pushes ahead. In two weeks Woods will peg it at the National outside Washington D.C., an event that benefits his foundation. Sometime afterward, Woods will pop over to Scotland for the British Open at Carnoustie. And with his World Ranking on the ascent, he just might crack the top 60 in time to qualify for the Bridgestone Invitational in August, where he’s won eight times. Shinnecock wasn’t much fun, but hey, Woods returning to one of his honey holes could be a blast.

By the time Woods wrapped up his round here Friday afternoon, lunch was served, skies had cleared and the sun shone brightly. A beautiful day for a boat ride. Full speed ahead.