PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The game’s greatest closer is trying his hand at middle relief. To be clear, it’s not as though Tiger Woods’ Saturday beige will ever supplant his Sunday red in the hearts and minds of the faithful, but in the legacy of greatness the world No. 1 is making moving day matter.
He did it in 2008 at Torrey Pines, igniting the SoCal masses with a closing nine of 33 that set the stage for a dramatic Sunday which begat an even more compelling Monday. On Saturday he treated the NorCal galleries to an encore, scorching storied Pebble Beach’s final stretch to the tune of 31 strokes.
“It's a U.S. Open. You've got to keep plodding along, all the U.S. Opens, all the ones that I've won, you have to have a nice stretch of nine holes, and that's what I did today,” said Woods, looking much more like the guy who won the last national championship held adjacent Stillwater Cove than a guy suffering through 15 minutes of infamy.
But then Woods didn’t start his day like he had a divine nine in him. Bogey-bogey out of the gates under cool, sunny skies Woods found himself nine strokes adrift with 34 holes to play.
When he made the turn he was 4 over and just hopeful he could scratch his way back to even par. He did one better, playing his last eight holes in 5 under for a 66. It was quintessential Woods, fist pumps, fearless shots and unforgettable moments.
Flash back two years to another seaside California cathedral and another sun-splashed Saturday. At the turn on Saturday at Torrey Pines Woods was at even par and going nowhere fast. Nine holes, two eagles, multiple fist pumps and a closing 33 later a one-legged Woods was on his way to the history books.
Saturday at Pebble Beach was déjà vu. At the 17th hole Woods hit a curling putt with his back to the hole. Twenty minutes later he hit a shot with his head in the sand, or at least that was NBC analyst Johnny Miller’s call as Woods pulled 3-wood with his ball stymied by a Monterey pine some 260 yards from the 18th green. Both moments ended well.
Those who have wondered if Woods’ heart and head were in the game following his missed cut at Quail Hollow and withdrawal from The Players Championship got an answer courtesy a cut 3-wood to 20 feet. Miller called the effort a “crazy shot,” but then history is normally the ultimate arbiter between crazy and courageous.
With one vicious cut, Woods ignited the Monterey masses and maybe a career that has appeared on hold since Nov. 27.
“Come on,” Woods barked as his second shot sailed toward the picturesque final green. Come on has been the collective take on the comeback three tournaments in.
What appeared to be indifference at Quail Hollow had the look of intensity on Saturday at Pebble Beach. What could have been interpreted as pained confusion at TPC Sawgrass had a purpose as afternoon turned to early evening adjacent the famed Lodge.
“It's been a while. I hadn't played good enough for anyone to cheer for anything,” said Woods, who will begin the final turn of the 110th U.S. Open five strokes behind leader Dustin Johnson. “It was nice to actually put it together on the back nine and put myself right back in the championship. And everyone was just so excited and fired up that it was just a great atmosphere.”
There will be much talk over the next 24 hours about the most curious competitive cross Woods must bear, having never won a major from behind. But then he’s never had so much to prove.
If the last four majors in his quest to match Jack Nicklaus’ historic haul of 18 Grand Slam tilts truly are going to be the hardest, a bookend Pebble Beach Open could be the difference maker.
Woods will be 43 when the Open returns to Pebble Beach in 2019 and he will get at least two more cracks at St. Andrews before then. That’s good math for a player who may be just now entering his prime.
But that’s getting ahead of the task at hand, and Woods doesn’t do that.
Following his 66 on Friday Phil Mickelson talked about having fun and not wanting the championship to end. On Saturday Woods flashed his toothy grin more than we’ve seen since late last year. The Good Times Open seems to be having that effect on everyone.
On Friday, one longtime Tour swing coach who was watching Woods warm up was asked what he thought of the post-Hank Haney action? “He doesn’t need a swing coach, he needs a friend,” was the answer.
Or maybe all he needed was nine good holes.