ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – It’s late Saturday at the Old Course, and Tiger Woods is trudging up the 18th fairway.
R&A members peer through the bay windows of the old stone clubhouse. Children balance on the metal barriers to get a better view. About a dozen men cram onto the balcony of the Rusacks Hotel, a Stella Artois in each of their right hands. And four couples sit on the benches atop the Old Course Shop, clapping politely and basking in the warm afternoon sun.
Woods doffed his white cap to the crowd, and the fans cheered louder.
He turned to Jason Day.
“It’s the greatest walk in golf,” he says.
This is only Day’s second trip to St. Andrews, but he knows all about the history here, about some of the most glorious chapters authored by the man walking beside him.
“Yeah,” Day replied, “it’s nice when you have an eight-shot lead, too.”
Fifteen years is a lifetime in golf, and the Woods in 2000 and the Woods now couldn’t be more dissimilar, in almost every respect.
As Woods crouched behind his putt in front of the 18th green, arms crossed in the stiff wind, he stared up at the big yellow scoreboard atop the 18th grandstand. There was no mistaking the black +7 next to Woods’ name, nor could he overlook his 17-shot deficit to the leader, JOHNSON D., who after 36 holes was at 10-under 134.
Heck, the only reason Woods was still around late Saturday at the Old Course was because Mother Nature decided to prolong his agony. His second round was delayed three times – because of rain, darkness and then wind – but if nothing else, all of the suspensions at least allowed Woods to play the weekend in a major for only the third time in the past 23 months.
A week at St. Andrews was supposed to lift him out of his miserable slump, to signal the start of his resurgence. Instead, it only provided more questions, none of which looms larger than this:
If he couldn’t summon the goods here – the only place outside Augusta, Ga., where he seems capable of morphing from Bad Tiger to Good Tiger – when and where could his game possibly turn?
Woods mustered only three birdies on a course that “wasn’t playing that hard” … and he had no explanation for why he couldn’t flight his shots into the wind … and he couldn’t get on a run, of birdies, of pars, of anything. And all of this, remember, came just two weeks after one of his most encouraging performances in the past few years, at The Greenbrier, where he led the field in proximity to the hole.
When he spoke with the media afterward, he wasn't angry or defensive. He just looked and sounded defeated.
“I felt like I was playing well enough to win this event,” he said.
Though a player’s confidence must be protected at all costs, Woods has always taken it to the extreme. He is trained to never appear vulnerable, and his mind clings to any positive thought, no matter how absurd it may sound. It’s part of what made him so great.
Now, though, as his game sinks to new lows, you can’t help but wonder if even Woods believes his own bizarre explanations. His recent use of weird golf jargon – "deactivated glutes" and "release patterns" and "baseline shifts" and "feels" – serves only to shield himself from the ugly truths about his floundering game.
He used a new excuse Friday.
Asked what he learned about his game this week, Woods said that he was surprised that his shots weren't flying through the wind, even though they were struck "solid" and "flush."
“We're going to have to take a look at my numbers, see if the spin rates are on or not,” he said.
What happened to just hitting golf shots?
Now fully healthy, Woods has been working through this most recent swing change with Chris Como for about nine months. It's unclear if he's made any progress at all. His good swings are very good. He pures it at home, and on the tournament range, and in practice rounds – or, in other words, when it doesn’t matter.
Woods had a “great” warmup here Thursday, before the start of this 144th Open. Then he stepped into the box some 20 minutes later, when the shots counted for real, and hit three of his first four full shots 10-handicapper fat. On a calm day when the front nine averaged more than a shot-and-a-half under par – including an opening 29 from David Lingmerth – Woods turned in 40.
“This idea that all of a sudden Tiger can’t take it from the range to the course couldn’t be further from the truth,” tweeted his former swing coach, Hank Haney. “He has had this problem.”
Afterward, not even Woods could offer a reasonable explanation.
“Disappointing,” he sighed. His first-round 76 was the worst score of his pro career at St. Andrews.
During his struggles with injury and form over the past two years, Woods’ fallback line has been some variation of Well, I’ve been down this road before. But that’s not exactly true.
Yes, he has destroyed and then rebuilt his golf swing into a competition-crushing machine. Four times, in fact. We can debate whether that obsessive pursuit of perfection robbed him of valuable time in the prime of his career, but Woods has still won a lot of tournaments with four different swings.
Perhaps this latest overhaul was one too many, because the fifth swing change – at the start of his age-39 season, and only seven months removed from back surgery – has produced what is statistically the worst golf of his career.
Woods may insist that he’s close, but the numbers tell a different story: Entering this week, he ranked 194th in driving accuracy, 190th in greens hit, 96th in putting and 198th (out of 199) in scoring.
This is the first time in his career that he’s missed the cut in both summer Opens (23 over par in four rounds).
This is the first time in his career that he’s missed three cuts in the same PGA Tour season.
This is his fifth missed cut in the past two years, equaling his total during a 12-year run from 1997-2009.
And this is the first time in 19 years that he’ll be outside the top 250 in the world ranking.
So go ahead, find a bright spot, anything, that suggests that this is not a man who is completely and utterly lost.
Once, it’s a mistake. Twice, it’s a habit. And the third time, well, the third time it’s a reality, and the reality now is that Tiger Woods is a mediocre golfer on the PGA Tour, a guy sandwiched between Roberto Castro and Bill Lunde on the FedEx Cup points list, a guy who needs to average a top-3 finish in his next two starts (the July 30-Aug. 2 Quicken Loans National, Aug. 13-16 PGA) to avoid spending the postseason on the couch.
Sure, he could probably use the extra downtime. He could use the next few months to regroup and reassess, to nurture his fragile psyche, to decide what’s next.
For his part, Woods, who turns 40 in December, says he has no intentions of giving up. When asked earlier this week whether he has contemplated the R-word, he responded: “Retirement? I don’t have any AARP card yet, so I’m a ways from that.”
Even that joke backfired. After Woods put up the 76 on Thursday, the AARP couldn’t help but take a shot at the easy target, departing from its automated feed about Social Security and caregivers and municipal bonds to tweet: “It’s better to be over 50 than it is to be over par.”
Woods was over par again here in the second round, signing for a 75, but he hit a few shots late Saturday that reminded all of us how easy the game used to be.
On the par-4 16th, he wailed away on a driver that sailed over a pot bunker and left only a wedge into the green. He judged his punch shot perfectly, and the ball skipped onto the green and to within tap-in range for one of only three birdies this week. For one of the few times this week, he played golf, not swing.
After a nifty up-and-down from the Road Hole bunker, Woods then hammered a tee shot on the home hole that came to rest just short of the green. He gave his eagle putt a run, even raising his putter in anticipation of the roar, but it raced 6 feet by. The comebacker missed, too.
He gave a quick wave to the crowd lining the entire right side of the hole, to the kids on the barriers and the men on the balcony and the couples on the bench. Ten minutes later, Woods was in the backseat of a gray Mercedes sedan, headed off property.
He will be 45 when the Open returns here in 2021, and it’s anyone’s guess what his game will look like then, or if he’ll even still be competing.
“I’ll probably have less hair then,” he said, cracking a rare smile, “and hopefully a little better game.”