PITTSFORD, N.Y. – It rained hard all morning, one of those why-are-we-still-out-here downpours that would have halted play at a standard PGA Tour event. At about the same time Tiger Woods pulled into the Oak Hill parking lot, however, the sky relented. Mother Nature smiled. And Sergio Garcia was just pretty darn happy he was on Tiger’s side of the draw.
Perhaps some of you don’t remember Garcia’s rant at the 2002 U.S. Open, when he accused the golf gods of giving Woods all the weather breaks. Just a month later, a Scottish monsoon rolled into Muirfield and supposedly destroyed Tiger’s Grand Slam aspirations, but let’s not get carried away with any of this stuff.
My point? Back when he ruled the earth, Woods seemed to compete not against other golfers, but higher powers. This caused guys like Sergio to hallucinate, exaggerate, and eventually, hyperventilate. He’s no Ordinary Joe now, but Woods used to jump on opportunities like the one he got Friday. Anyone who hit fairways would have a marvelous opportunity to make up ground. If you made a few putts, they might even reserve you a first-class seat heading into the weekend.
Air Red Shirt never got off the tarmac Friday afternoon. Woods’ 3-wood off the first tee vanished in the high grass 5 yards right of the first cut. His frustration was plainly obvious – Tiger spent maybe two seconds over the next shot before chopping his ball back into play. On a 460-yard hole yielding 8 inches of roll, you can’t hit a 3-wood and miss the fairway when a creek traverses the entire width of the green.
Either smash your driver and wedge it over the water from any lie – or choose a club that guarantees a second shot from the short grass.
Tiger basically did the same thing to start the final round of the British Open. Iron off the tee on a par-4 playing straight downwind – a lot of guys hit driver – leaving Woods a sand wedge from about 150 yards. He hit it straight up in the air, which seemed to make sense, but it landed about 100 feet short of the hole and did nothing, which eventually necessitated a 5-footer for par. He missed.
Woods has always admitted to first-tee jitters. Was the grotesque hook at Muirfield three days earlier responsible for the lack of confidence that Sunday? In a game of red light/green light, the Tiger of 2013 bears little resemblance to the Eldrick Almighty of 2000 – or the clever cat who picked his spots so well during the heart of the Hank Haney era. The aggression is gone, the swagger on a long-term siesta. Has a lack of confidence bred this misplaced conservatism, or is it the other way around?
Back to Oak Hill. At the par-5 fourth, Tiger’s wild lash with a driver ultimately cost him an easy scoring chance, and by then, his body language was spewing obscenities. Friday was a waste of time for a man with 14 major championships and 14 billion eyeballs glued to his back. Woods’ even-par 70 leaves him 10 back going into the weekend. He would have to leap 25 guys to have any kind of shot Sunday.
More than any round he has played since his personal crisis in late 2009, Tiger looked like a man burdened by the task at Oak Hill. The greens were marshmallows, the air perfectly still. The afternoon half of the draw had it easier than the guys who played in the morning. On my live chat, someone suggested that it took Woods awhile to regain his form in regular events, but once he did, he was as good as ever.
I see the opposite. Events like Firestone offer no competitive challenge to Woods at this point. Sure, a win is nice, and winning by seven shots is always lots of fun, but the primary purpose of such an exercise is to reach and maintain one’s peak form at the upcoming major.
When four weeks each year are the only ones that matter to you, the feast-or-famine mentality creates a poisonous type of pressure. No question in my mind, Tiger Woods is feeling it. He’s living it, breathing it, and at this point, doing his best to cope with it. Think of it as a little icy patch at the three-quarter pole on Mount Nicklaus.