Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson struggled to hit fairways on a frustrating afternoon for the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world at the BMW Championship.
If you like your stars shining, Thursday provided a microcosm of what’s wrong with this PGA Tour season.
The game’s two best players continue to struggle to find their best stuff.
A year ago, Mickelson and Woods gave us the most riveting finish we’ve seen in the short history of the FedEx Cup playoffs. They won the final two FedEx Cup events. In the end, Mickelson took the Tour Championship and Woods the FedEx Cup.
Neither looks close to winning form in the third leg of this year's playoffs.
Every time you looked up at Cog Hill, Woods seemed to be twisting his face in disgust after a wayward shot.
After his promising start in the first two FedEx Cup playoff events, Woods stumbled here. His work with swing coach Sean Foley may be trending upward, but Thursday was a step backwards with his ball striking. He was an escape artist in posting a 2-over-par 73 on a course where he’s won five times. If not for some impressive recovery shots, he would be even farther back on the brink of playoff elimination.
Woods is nine shots behind front-running Matt Kuchar and tied for 45th. Woods needs to finish this event among the top five to advance to the Tour Championship.
That Woods is highly motivated to advance to the playoff finale is clear in the fact that he knows what he needs to do to get there.
“As of right now, I’m only five shots out of that spot,” Woods said. “That’s not bad. Guys aren’t going to go low at this place because the greens aren’t good enough to go low. Obviously, there are a couple guys that have played well today, but overall the guys just aren’t tearing the place apart.”
Woods hit just five fairways after another warmup with Foley helping him hone a new swing on the range.
“Today, probably a handful of times, I got caught in between the two takeaways of my old swing and my new swing,” Woods said. “And I hit some bad shots. When I get into funky lies, I still have to make the commitment to the new swing.”
Mickelson isn’t in such dire straits entering this event 14th in the FedEx Cup standings, nor does his game look as wayward as Woods, but he appeared every bit as frustrated as Woods trying to make his way around Cog Hill’s narrow, tree-lined fairways.
With a 72, Mickelson’s tied for 34th, eight shots back. He hit just seven fairways but was Houdini-like in some of his escapes, including his approach out of a ditch and onto the fourth green from 140 yards to set up a par.
In Mickelson’s case, the challenge this week is finding his best on a course he clearly does not like.
“The most challenging thing for me is mentally getting up for playing here,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson wasn’t eager to elaborate.
Here’s a piece of the transcript from his post-round scrum:
Q: What’s your take on this golf course?
Mickelson: “It’s interesting.”
Q: Is it harder for you to play well on a course that you don’t have a lot of affection for?
Mickelson didn’t play a practice round at Cog Hill all week. He practiced at Butler National on Wednesday. His best finish in 11 starts on the course is a tie for 26th in 1996.
“Everybody has to play it,” Mickelson said. “I didn’t play it as effectively as I would have liked, but I got off to a good start and had some opportunities for birdies.”
Mickelson got to 2 under through his first four holes, stumbled with three bogeys, but fought back to even par before missing a 4-footer for par at his closing hole.
“Kind of left a bad taste in my mouth,” Mickelson said.
Woods knows what he means. He dined on the same disappointment Thursday.