SAN DIEGO – For years, Tiger Woods’ nearly annual trek to Torrey Pines has felt almost scripted.
Show up, tee off, wait four days and pick up the trophy behind the 18th green. Wash, rinse, repeat.
As he set his sights on a ninth professional win on the South Course this week, though, things seemed a little off. Then they seemed a lot off. Then Woods bottomed out with a mind-boggling 79 Saturday, missing a 54-hole cut for the first time in his PGA Tour career in the process.
Trouble began to brew for the world’s top-ranked player Thursday, when he failed to capitalize on any of the four par 5s at the South Course. That turned out to be just the beginning of a startling trend, as he played 12 par 5s in 4 over for the week without recording a single birdie.
An area of prior strength was first neutralized, then ultimately turned into an improbable liability.
Despite the early hiccup, though, the seven-time Farmers Insurance Open champion was expected to make up ground on the easier North Course Friday. A pedantic 1-under 71 resulted, and ground was instead lost.
Woods approached Saturday’s third round knowing that he needed a low score to return to contention, and his early tee-to-green approach demonstrated that fact. He was firing at pins – sometimes missing, but finding the target more than once – and stood in the 18th fairway, his ninth hole of the morning, in ideal position. He was 1 under on the day, 2 under for the week with fairway wood in hand, still with an outside shot of climbing back into things.
Then the wheels fell off.
The two hours of golf that followed his splash-down double bogey at No. 18 were the likes of which you hardly ever see from a PGA Tour professional, let alone the best player in the game. Mistakes followed one after the other, errors were compounded, and when Woods walked off the sixth green with bogey, he capped off a seven-hole stretch of play during which he lost an astonishing nine shots to par.
“You don’t expect to see that out of him,” explained Jhonattan Vegas, who carded a 2-over 74 Saturday while playing alongside Woods. “But like I said, it’s a game. It even happens to the best. It happens to everyone.”
The “it” in question was a complete and utter unraveling for Woods, a stretch of nearly unrecognizable golf that was only accentuated by his past dominance on the scenic South Course. The 7-over 79 was just his fourth career over-par round at Torrey Pines, and the total was more than 10 shots above his career scoring average in San Diego.
“I don’t know what was going through his head, but it was definitely different seeing him make so many bogeys,” continued Vegas. “We’re not used to seeing him make so many mistakes.”
Indeed, the miscues offered up by the 14-time major champ were more reminiscent of the group of amateurs that gathered Saturday to play the adjacent North Course. A pair of missed putts from inside four feet. Pitches sailing over the green. Approach shots flying from one patch of thick rough to the next.
When Woods knocked in a 10-foot putt to save par at No. 9, he avoided shooting in the 80s for just the second time in his professional career, but the damage was already done. His week along the Pacific was brought to an abrupt end Saturday, as he became one of nine casualties of the 54-hole cut necessitated when 82 players made it to the weekend.
Three days ago, such a result seemed beyond implausible. Woods received his 2013 Player of the Year trophy Wednesday from commissioner Tim Finchem and appeared poised to begin his 2014 season as he had so many before – by walking off the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines about one million dollars richer.
Instead, he now heads halfway around the world to Dubai on the heels of his first career MDF finish on the PGA Tour – also known as Made cut, Did not Finish. Hardly the distinction Woods was in search of this week.
While in the past his ultra-high rounds have sometimes been met with a wince or an explanation, Woods offered neither Saturday as he appeared pain-free throughout the round but left Torrey Pines without speaking to the media. What his inward nine lacked in back stretches, though, Woods made up for with what appeared to be general indifference.
With precision so often a trademark of his play around the greens, Woods struggled to get seemingly routine chips within a 10-foot circle, and by the time his second pitch found the hole for an improbable par at No. 8, he had resigned to hitting the ball without so much as a practice swing.
It all added up to perhaps the most puzzling outcome imaginable. After all, this place is Woods’ safety blanket. This is where it’s all supposed to make sense, where the best in the business can return from his offseason and shake off the rust without so much as a hiccup.
Instead, Woods’ storied history at Torrey Pines will now receive an unlikely footnote – one that creates more questions than answers as the season begins in earnest for the top-ranked player in the world.