Tiger Leaves Field Feeling Blue

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2007 U.S. OpenOAKMONT, Pa. -- It was blue shirt day at the U.S. Open, or so it looked. Tiger Woods set the fashion as usual, but it seemed like half the players got the same memo from Nike on just what to wear.
 
They must have gotten the memo on whining too, because there wasn't as much of that going on. A day after the since-departed Phil Mickelson declared the course dangerous to the health of golfers everywhere, the USGA poured so much water on the greens that Oakmont Country Club played less than its usual snarly self.
 
Woods led all the blue shirts with a 1-under 69 that could have been a whole lot better. Most golf rounds can, of course, but it was especially true on this day for Woods, who had one eagle putt and 17 attempts at birdie on a course that played to an average of nearly 7 over par the day before.
 
He didn't flinch until the 18th hole, when a wayward tee shot cost him his only bogey and left him muttering unmentionables to himself. No big deal, though, because almost everyone else except Aaron Baddeley was spitting it up around him.
 
It wasn't enough to put him in the lead, just enough to get him in the final group. He'll tee off Sunday in his traditional red shirt knowing he's swinging sweeter than ever, secure in the knowledge that he's already won a full dozen major championships.
 
That by itself has to have the people on the leaderboard alongside him feeling more than just a bit blue.
 
'Tee to green, he's just awesome,' playing partner Nick Dougherty said. 'He's the man.'
 
Actually, Baddeley is the man, at least for now. The Aussie best known for his commercials with a car full of blondes used a miracle shot on the 17th hole and a finishing birdie to craft a two-stroke lead over Woods.
 
Listening to Baddeley talk afterward about how his life is now calm and complete, you almost wanted to hand him the U.S. Open trophy right then. He seems unflappable, without the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look that most players chasing their first major championship against Woods usually have.
 
And don't forget that the most surprising statistic among all the great ones Woods has amassed is that he has never come from behind in the final round to win a major championship.
 
No matter. Woods may not think the average 10-handicapper can break 100 at Oakmont this week, but the average 10-handicapper surely believes Woods will be the one standing on the 18th green Sunday with his third Open championship well in hand.
 
With good reason, because they've watched him do too many unbelievable things before not to believe he'll win an Open once again.
 
And this time they're right.
 
Now if only Baddeley plays along. He doesn't always get the message. He wore white on Saturday, after all.
 
If ever Woods had a major championship just there for the pickings, though, it's this one. He's not only the 500-pound gorilla on a leaderboard filled with wannabes, but the effortless way he played Saturday showed he was in command of all parts of his game.
 
He shot a 69, but it just as easily could have been a 64. Woods hit the first 17 greens, rolled the ball beautifully with his putter and with any luck at all would already be leading this Open.
 
The 3-wood stingers off the tee were center cut, his irons rarely left the pin, and the putts were always just the right speed. He felt so good he even pulled out the driver on the two short par-4s and blasted away at the green.
 
'I hit it crisp and clean,' Woods said. 'I controlled my trajectory and was able to move the ball both ways.'
 
In other words, the best player of his era is playing as good as he can, which has to be about as frightening to other players as the Oakmont rough was to Mickelson. The crowd surrounding the ninth tee loved it so much that it gave Woods two ovations, one after he hit a 3-wood down the middle and the second when he emerged from a Port-a-Potty to go hit his ball again.
 
Baddeley noted, quite correctly and quite bravely, that he has played with Woods in two Masters and understands what goes with the circus that surrounds him. But those were early rounds and he's never seen anything like he'll see midafternoon Sunday when the sun-soaked and beer-drenched crowd of some 45,000 starts roaring for Woods the moment he leaves the practice green and heads for the first tee.
 
Add in the pressure of playing for a major championship, and this has the potential to get ugly for a group of contenders who haven't won majors before.
 
'They're going to deal with emotions they probably haven't dealt with before,' Woods warned. 'I've been there before. I know what it takes.'
 
Those aren't just fighting words. Woods may not have come from behind in the final to win a major before, but a big reason behind that is that when he's playing well he's usually leading after Saturday.
 
He's a finisher like the game has never seen, and the evidence is the 12 major titles he already has stashed away.
 
Don't be surprised on Sunday when he makes it a baker's dozen.
 
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