PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – There’s a lot left to find out about Tiger Woods, a lot more we want to know.
He remains an enigma on spikes, stubbornly private through times both spectacular and scandalous. The tabloids still can’t find out if he’s getting divorced, and sports writers might as well read tea leaves as ask him about the state of his game.
But a few things did become clear about Woods as he made his way around Pebble Beach on a gorgeous afternoon on the edge of the Pacific.
His game, like his life, is different now. And he’s not going to win this U.S. Open by 15 shots.
May not win it at all, though he fared better in his opening effort than his co-favorite, a certain Lefty who made his mark at the Masters as the anti-Tiger. Phil Mickelson hit two balls into the Pacific, couldn’t sniff a birdie putt, and staggered in with a first-round 75 that will take some work to recover from.
Woods, meanwhile, was simply mediocre. That’s not necessarily a bad thing at the Open, but it is if your name is Tiger Woods and the course is Pebble Beach.
It was here 10 years ago that he shot 65 in the opening round to make a statement that the Open was his. It was here that he ran away with the national championship by 15 shots in an epic performance that will live long in golf lore.
And it’s here that he came this week with hopes of finally escaping from the funk on the golf course that started with the infamous funk in his personal life.
It didn’t happen Thursday, when a promising start from tee and fairway was negated by a dismal day on the greens. And it’s not likely to happen this week if Woods continues to fritter away chances like he did in an opening round when he didn’t make even one birdie and finished with a 74.
Surely it won’t happen if he continues to mangle the par-5s he used to own.
“That’s just the way it is,” Woods said. “It’s a U.S. Open. It’s going to be difficult.”
For everyone else, yes. But from Woods we’ve come to expect far more, especially at Pebble Beach.
He was 24 when the Open was played here last, already anointed as the Chosen One and ready to embark on a run that showed the doubters just how great he could be. Twenty pounds lighter, with no baggage and a much different swing, he romped to the first of four straight major championships, a feat most thought impossible.
No one had ever finished a U.S. Open in double digits under par. No one had come close to winning any major by 15 shots.
No one has since, either, and not even the most ardent Tiger fans expected him to do it again this year. Still, there was a feeling that his game was finally coming around and that this would be the perfect spot for Woods to regain his old swagger.
The early holes were promising, even though the putts didn’t fall. Woods was hitting fairways and greens – none of those wild shots that had crept into his game the last two months – and was even par through eight holes on a day where no one would finish better than 2-under.
Then came the heckler on the ninth tee, playing off of Woods’ claim that the state of his marriage was no one’s business.
“It is our business,” he yelled. “You made it our business.”
Woods acknowledged he heard what was said. But he said it didn’t cause his three-putt on the ninth green, or his spotty play coming in.
“No, God no,” he said.
On that point, Woods was probably telling the truth. He’s always had the ability to compartmentalize things, and he’s famous for the focus he brings to every shot.
The heckler was one thing, the tricky greens quite another.
Woods complained that they had gotten bumpy later in the day, as poa annua greens tend to do, and he said it was no coincidence that the best scores came from the morning starters.
Actually, though, the leaders, like Woods, played in the afternoon, and when someone asked if he found that bit of information interesting, he responded with only a curt “No.”
Hard to blame Woods for being a bit testy. Someone yelled at him, he couldn’t make putts, and an 18-year-old and an amateur posted better scores.
Then he topped it all off by making an ugly 6 on the 18th hole from the middle of the fairway.
Ten years ago he left a foggy Pebble Beach after the first round with the lead, secure in the knowledge he could make putts whenever he needed them. On this brilliantly sunny day he went home five behind and with no clue how to get the ball into the hole.
Back then he was confident about winning, confident no one could challenge him. Now he talked about grinding it out and trying to remain in contention.
“There’s a long way to go. Just keep plugging along and see where I come Sunday afternoon,” Woods said.
Where he’s come now is a long way from where he once was. Now at least it’s a fair fight against players who no longer feel compelled to bow before him.
Unfortunately for Woods, there’s no guarantee anymore that he’ll be the last one standing.