PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Stepping to a makeshift stage a short walk from the ninth green, Tiger Woods did not mince words following his second round at the U.S. Open.
“I’m a little hot right now,” Woods said. “I just signed my card about a minute ago. So need a little time to cool down a little bit.”
Following a day with plenty of promise and scant results, Woods had reason to feel the steam building under his collar. While his opener at Pebble Beach was somewhat a product of smoke and mirrors, draining putts and saving pars to keep the round on track by the thinnest of margins, this was a stroll along the coast where birdie chances were in high supply. The consistency that eluded Woods with his irons and wedges the day before made a decided turnaround, helping him find 13 greens in regulation – four more than Thursday’s 1-under 70.
But the 11-footer he rolled in for birdie on No. 11, his second hole of the day, proved to be a rare bright spot and the lone birdie in an otherwise frustrating round. The rest of the round was a slow bleed, as Woods time and again was unable to capitalize on the type of controlled ball-striking many in the field would envy and eventually signed for a score that was two strokes higher than the day before.
Pars are usually welcome sights in a U.S. Open, and Woods made 14 of them in a row. Going back to the opening round, he had a run of 29 holes without a bogey – a longer stretch than even he had en route to that 15-shot romp in 2000. But with Pebble’s teeth scaled back amid calm winds and soft conditions, Woods was stuck in neutral while Justin Rose showed him that pars aren’t the only thing on the menu this week.
“Overall, I kept leaving myself above the hole,” Woods said. “And unlike yesterday, when I missed it and I missed it in the correct spots below the hole, today I never had that many looks from below the hole. And the one I did have, I made at 11.”
Woods’ self-assessment speaks to the small margins that make Pebble a demanding championship venue. Already boasting the smallest greens in tournament golf, summer conditions can make them play even smaller and make an uphill 30-footer more desirable than an 8-footer back down the slope.
But when he looks back on where things went awry, Woods will surely focus on his second nine Friday. After each of the first two rounds he has hammered the importance of capitalizing on Nos. 1-7, then “hanging on” over the subsequent 11 holes. He did just that Friday morning, starting on the 10th and making the turn at 2 under for the week. The stage was set for him to bury a few putts and move firmly into the mix, perhaps reaching the 4 under plateau currently enjoyed by Matt Kuchar and defending champ Brooks Koepka, among others.
Instead he missed three birdie putts from inside 15 feet before the course bit back, per his forecast, on Nos. 8 and 9 where bogeys dropped him out of red figures for just the second time all week.
Staring at a seven-shot deficit against an accomplished former champ, and with more than two dozen other contenders between him and the top spot, Woods said all the right things and failed to give up on his chances for a fourth U.S. Open title and 16th major championship.
“Right now, I’m still in the ball game,” he said. “There’s so many guys with a chance to win. We’ve got a long way to go and, you know, we’ll see how it shapes up for tomorrow.”
But barring another flash of that 2000 form, Woods’ realistic chances to win may have come and gone. While this event usually separates wheat from chaff with squares of all sorts on the scorecard, Woods’ primary issue hasn’t been an inability to limit the errors.
Instead, it’s been about creating ample chances and having little to show for the effort. Woods spoke often about the “grind it out” aspect of this tournament, one of its annual hallmarks. But this week, with verdant grass around every corner and coastal conditions relatively calm, idling by has left him chasing a decorated lead pack. And it won’t get any easier to find the gas pedal over the weekend.