UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – The tournament practice range on a Wednesday evening can be a lonely place. Practice rounds are in the books, and course notes have long been compiled. It’s certainly no time for players to dig answers out of the dirt.
But there stood Tiger Woods on Wednesday at Chambers Bay, the only player on an otherwise abandoned practice facility. Drilling range balls as the sun began to dip, rehearsing patterns and searching for solutions.
After he began the U.S. Open with a 10-over 80, it’s clear he didn’t find them.
The player who struggled mightily at TPC Sawgrass and imploded at Muirfield Village? Yep, he made the trek out to the Pacific Northwest. But while his bottoming out at the Memorial came from miscues magnified by penalty shots, this was death by 1,000 paper cuts.
The driving, the approach shots, the putting. Everything was just a little bit off on a course – and in an event – designed to accentuate the small misses. There is nowhere to hide at Chambers Bay, particularly in front of a primetime audience, and Woods offered up a nearly six-hour testament to the fact that he remains very much lost.
“Not very happy, that’s for sure. It was a tough day,” Woods said. “I stuck that 6-iron in the ground on the first hole, and then just couldn’t quite get it turned around today.”
On a day when many of the game’s best went well into red figures, Woods didn’t make a birdie until his 16th hole. At that point, he was beating only one player among the 156-man field, a 27-year-old club pro named Rich Berberian.
His scorecard was already riddled with bullet holes before Woods came to the par-5 18th, but there he added salt to a gaping wound. His second shot, a cold-topped 3-wood, trickled into a bunker that USGA executive director Mike Davis didn’t expect a single person to find all week. It was a cringe-worthy effort usually reserved for struggling pro-am partners.
Woods then climbed down into the “Chambers Basement,” reaching the literal bottom of the course after finding the figurative one much earlier in the day. At that point, the scene wasn’t one of shock or surprise. It was simply sad.
Woods has completed 15 rounds this year, failing to break 80 on three occasions. Two weeks after recording his worst career score, he added his highest-ever round at the U.S. Open.
Woods appears destined to miss the cut at this event for just the second time as a professional, and his struggles have no end in sight. This despite his attempts to paint a rosy picture with proclamations that seem to lack just a bit more conviction every time he trots them out.
“I know when I do it right, it’s so easy,” he said. “It just feels easy to control, easy to do it, easy to hit all my shots. I just need to do it more often and build from there.”
Rest assured, there was nothing easy about Woods’ opening round. Now in the heart of his summer of competitive reps, Woods has hammered home the notion of short-term struggles for the sake of long-term gains. His limp around Chambers Bay certainly didn’t bring him any closer to the second part of that equation.
“It’s just one of those things, just got to work through it,” he said. “I’m trying as hard as I can to do it, and for some reason I just can’t get the consistency that I’d like to have out there.”
The fact that this round came on the 15-year anniversary of Woods’ greatest triumph, his portrait of perfection at Pebble Beach, only serves to show how far he has fallen. The game that appeared so simple back then, so fluid and natural, is now an uphill struggle on all fronts. Woods is hyper-aware of every aspect of his game, forced to think his way through shots and processes that once were second nature.
“I fought, I fought hard. And that was my number. I couldn’t grind out any harder than that,” he said. “So that’s just the way I played, and unfortunately it was a high number today.”
Woods’ round was encapsulated on No. 8. Perched high on a hill along the edge of the property, the hole isn’t accessible this week for spectators. Players are offered a brief reprieve from the frenzy, a chance to hit a few shots in quiet conditions that resemble a Monday practice round.
It was amid that silent air there that Woods, after sailing his tee shot right of right, took a mighty lash and dug his ball out of a hilly mass of fescue. Except the ball went dead left, and his club went sailing backwards over his head.
Woods was left to look around – first for the club, then for the ball. He stood perched on the hillside, arms at his side, simply wondering where it all went.
That search continues for Woods, but the target has never seemed farther away.