He made 75 miles worth of putts on Pebble’s cobblestone greens in 2000 – we didn’t hear a peep from Eldrick Almighty that week. Other than the 2007 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, when Woods accused a spike mark of costing him his third-round tilt against Nick O’Hern, I can’t recall Tiger finding fault in something other than himself. Bumpy greens, ruddy fairways and inconsistent sand all have been known to help great players more than hurt them.
Greatness capitalizes, mediocrity capsizes. Woods hasn’t been great this year and he certainly hasn’t been all that good this week. “I’m right there,” he must have said a half-dozen times after a second-round 72, but where “there” is, I’m not really sure. He did manage three birdies Friday, three more than we saw Thursday, but his speed on the greens is off, and when Tiger is putting poorly, it’s not because he’s misreading them or striking them crooked.
Maybe that’s why we heard him complain about the bumps and bruises after a 34-putt Thursday. Why Woods said nobody in the late/early half of the draw made anything, when in fact the three lowest first-round scores came from the afternoon side. We call it frustration, and when it comes from the greatest player of this generation, maybe any generation, we have little choice but to search for a reason.
Tiger isn’t the same player because he isn’t the same person. Five starts into the Biggest Comeback Ever, he has yet to strike the ball well and hole timely putts on the same day, much less in the same week. His best score in 15 rounds this year remains the first round he played – an opening 68 at the Masters. As if to prove that statistics are nothing more than a numerical mirage, Woods entered this week leading the PGA Tour in putts per green in regulation (1.708) and birdie-conversion percentage (36.6).
He’s also 47th in scoring. This week, Tiger’s golf swing is 10 times better than it was at Memorial, a blend of speed and balance we haven’t seen very often. Then, out of nowhere, he clanks a tee shot off a tree left of the par-4 third and does well to make a 5, but it’s still his third bogey in a five-hole stretch. A birdie at the diminutive seventh got him in at 4 over, but if seven strokes back with 36 holes to play is “right there,” Tiger is in dire need of a compass, six birdies and a reality check.
Woods showed up for the 110th U.S. Open armed with his best swing of the year, heading to a venue he torched to historic proportions a decade ago, given another opportunity to putt on surfaces he has deciphered the way a fortune teller reads palms. To see him drift away isn’t so much odd as it is newsworthy: the window of major-championship opportunity is wide open. Phil Mickelson, who putted even worse than Tiger on Thursday, spent Friday afternoon reinventing hope for the umpteenth time in his career. Suddenly, this is his championship to win.
There is gettin’ to be gotten, and Philly Mick, dare I say, gets it. The Dude in the Red Shirt? Jury’s still deliberating.