Tiger Woods didn’t have to sound convincing before his infamous crash into his neighbor’s yard.
If Woods were seven shots behind with two rounds to go in a major championship and said he felt good about his position, you wondered when players would start getting out of his way.
You knew such confidence would sound delusional coming out of most any other player’s mouth except his.
That’s the invincible nature that surrounded Woods when he came from seven shots back with seven holes to go to win the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am a decade ago. It’s the overpowering aura he possessed a few months later when he won the U.S. Open here by 15 shots.
“I’m right there,” Woods said after shooting a 1-over-par 72 Friday to get himself in the middle of the pack. “I’m right there in the championship. I just need to make a few more birdies, a few more putts on the weekend, and I’ll be right there.”
The words aren’t convincing now. They rang awkwardly after a round where Woods flirted a lot closer to missing the cut than contending.
The low 60 scores and ties and anyone within 10 shots of the lead make the cut in a U.S. Open.
Through 15 holes Friday, Woods was tied for 72nd and nine shots off the lead.
Back at Doral before Woods made his comeback from the sex scandal, Graeme McDowell said players were curious whether Woods would return without his aura of invincibility.
“There’s no doubt we’re wondering about that,” McDowell said back then. “If he doesn’t come back and win quick, there’s no doubt his force field’s gone a little bit. All of a sudden, he’s more human.”
McDowell just so happens to be leading this U.S. Open at the halfway mark.
You don’t get the feeling he’s looking over his shoulder to see where Woods is lurking.
You don’t get the feeling anyone is.
In fact, after the first round, you wondered if Jack Nicklaus would have discounted Woods as a player he had to beat this week if Nicklaus were in his prime now. That’s relevant because Nicklaus said whenever he heard a player complaining about conditions at major championship venues, he crossed them off his list of guys he thought could challenge him. Woods complaining about Pebble Beach’s greens “being awful” in the first round would have gotten him scratched.
Maybe that’s a mistake, though.
Ernie Els thinks so.
Or at least Els said as much when asked if he could discount Woods because of his uncertain form.
“No, you can’t,” said Els, who played the first two rounds beside Woods. “A guy that's won 14 majors, he's got a lot of game. I think he's very close. I haven't played with him in about a year. I think his ball striking was pretty good the last two days. His short game is pretty sharp. He just didn't make enough putts. He's skimming the hole. Nothing looks out of the ordinary. He looks pretty sharp. I think it's only a matter of time before he starts getting in his strike.”
As straight a shooter as Els is, he didn’t sound all that convincing either.
That’s because the words don’t match what we’re seeing yet.
Woods may be here this week, but his invincible nature didn’t make the trip.
His once overpowering aura is switched off.
It will remain off until Woods starts firing lightning bolts again.
That’s the cut-throat nature of this bewildering game, where players who are No. 1 in the world and major championship winners can lose their powers almost overnight. David Duval’s mojo left him in a hurry. Seve Ballesteros lost it quickly, too. As did Ian Baker-Finch. Ralph Guhldahl was dominant as an early contemporary of Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead era and lost it in a flash.
Woods may not have lost his magic. He may be on the verge of another merciless tear brought on by a simple fix that regularly sends the ball where he’s looking again. That seems more likely than believing Woods has lost his gift forever. If his putting left him all at once, that’s a different story, but his stroke seems true.
Still, there are just enough examples of mystifying disappearances of power through golf’s history to make you wonder.