ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Thursday at St. Andrews was a day for supernatural phenomena, large and small. It was a day when 46-year-old Retief Goosen and 46-year-old Paul Lawrie, who have not been heard from in years, vaulted toward the lead. It was a day when 49-year-old 1990s icon John Daly, circus and pants and all, made birdies, and a 21-year-old kid from outside St. Louis, Jordan Niebrugge, shot the lowest-ever round for an amateur at the Open Championship. Phil Mickelson made a little run. Mark O’Meara and Bernhard Langer made little runs. Heck, even 65-year-old Tom Watson managed to get his score to 2 under before aging rapidly on the back nine.
And somehow, with all that magic dust blowing in the Scottish wind, Tiger Woods still looked positively hopeless.
In many ways, his 4-over-par 76 in the first round of the Open was the low point of this painful Tiger Woods crash. True, picking Woods’ low point in this nightmarish season is a bit like picking the worst part of the Adam Sandler movie “Jack and Jill.” When you think the hot dog proposal by Al Pacino has to be the worst part, you’re countered by Jill’s stupid jokes about her nephew who is Indian. And at some point you have to admit, as a friend of mine likes to say, that distinctions at that level are not worth making.
Still, I think the argument can be made that this was the worst because it was all there for him. As bad as Tiger’s 82 was at the Phoenix Open, well, he was kind of in between swing changes and he “couldn’t find the bottom” or whatever golf talk he came up with. As bad as his withdrawal the following week — the famous “glutes not activating” withdrawal — was, well, he was not healthy, and he was confused, and he took some time off. As awful as his 85 at the Memorial might have been, well, he did make the cut there and as he said, “We have moments where we go backward.” As dreadful as his 80 at the U.S. Open was, well, it was Chambers Bay, which was a quirky golf course that magnified his flaws.
But this … this was the ideal setup. Dreams don’t come in this clearly. Here was a healthy Tiger Woods coming off his best tournament in months. He was playing a golf course that has been his personal playground; twice he has won Open Championships on the Old Course, and the first time in 2000 he played golf about as well as it has ever been played.
And the conditions were so wonderfully benign as he teed off that every single player in the three groups in front of him and the one group behind him broke par on the front nine. Earlier, David Lingmerth set an Open nine-hole recor, starting with a 29. Later, an amateur named Paul Kinnear — who told the Daily Mail, “Four weeks ago my mum was looking for a job for me as a van driver” — shot 31 on the front. That front nine was downwind, the greens were pillow soft, and the fairways were as wide as Kansas. You could not miss.
And Tiger Woods went out and shot 40 on the front nine.
Every hole was a nightmare. On the first, he chunked his second shot into the Swilcan Burn, a shot that looked like it was hit by a 10-handicapper. On the second, his second shot seemed like an optical illusion — he left it 40 yards short of the green, as if he was laying up. On the third, he spun his second shot back off the green. On the fifth, he pulled his drive into some junk, pulled his second shot into some kind of canyon, chunked his third shot nowhere close and three-putted from there. On the seventh, he missed a 4-foot putt for par.
On the back nine, he bogeyed the 10th, birdied the par-5 15th, made a couple of nice shots and a couple of terrible ones, and he finished with a 76, 11 shots behind Dustin Johnson and nine shots behind the man trying for a Grand Slam, Jordan Spieth. This year, in a statistic worked out by the Augusta Chronicle’s Scott Michaux, Woods and Spieth have played 18 competitive rounds in tournaments together. Spieth has outscored Woods by 108 shots.
This one was awful to watch. Yes, it has often felt awful watching Tiger Woods lately. It is agonizing to watch a legend grow old, but this was different. There seems no return from this one, no reason to believe tomorrow will be better, no rationale for hope.
Woods has been one of the most thrilling athletes of my lifetime, a magnificent force of nature who has made me gasp and scream and come alive. His duel with Bob May at the PGA Championship is one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen. His hole-out on the 16th at Augusta in 2005 – where he chipped the ball toward a speck of sunshine and watched it roll back to the hole – still gives me chills. His play at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2000 was the greatest golf I’ve ever seen anyone play, and he followed that up with his virtuoso performance at St. Andrews at the 2000 Open Championship. No one – not Nicklaus, not Hogan, not Snead, not Jones – ever played golf like that.
And so, even though I did begin sensing and writing about Tiger’s decline five years ago, I never wanted to believe it. Even as I predicted Tiger would absolutely not break Jack Nicklaus’ record and the furious emails poured in – and boy did they pour in back in those early days of the Tiger drought – I found myself thinking: “I hope you’re right and I’m wrong.”
Even when he kept getting injured, even when he stopped winning, even when he decided to keep changing his swing and talking about weird golf adjustments that sounded like they were made up (baseline shift?), I wanted to believe. Even this year, as things have fallen apart, I have sat in news conferences with Tiger Woods and listened to him talk and thought, “Maybe, just maybe, he’s going to find something.”
There are no illusions left. Thursday was heaven-sent. Somewhere, at some golf course he was designing or at home on his tennis court, Jack Nicklaus himself probably heard about this day and wanted to pick up his clubs. And Tiger Woods was all but helpless. “Discouraging,” Woods said when it ended. “Yeah, I was a little – angered a little bit.”
He then tried to talk about how he played better on the back nine because his mind is magnetically pulled to positive thoughts; that’s part of what once made him so great. But even he couldn’t put his heart into it. There was nothing positive to grab. The end is here for one of the greatest golfers who ever lived. You never know when a magical week will happen, of course. Tom Watson had one at age 59 at Turnberry. Jack Nicklaus had several, including a Masters where he charged though he was 56. Greg Norman almost won the 2008 Open though he had not been a factor at a major in almost a decade. Fred Couples somehow manages to get on the leaderboard at the Masters in his 50s.
Tiger Woods could have those magical weeks still, but it’s becoming clear: That’s what it will take. Magic. And as Thursday proved, sometimes even magic isn’t enough.