On Friday evening at storied Winged Foot, the biggest story on the grounds wasn’t who was sticking around for the weekend.
The story was who wasn’t.
Tiger Woods made his first appearance at a golf tournament since the Masters, and though he
gave a stouthearted effort, he clearly was missing more than his beloved father. Woods maintained his game wasn’t rusty, but it was, and a course lauded as the toughest in Open history exposed it fully.
As a result, he had the weekend off for the first time in 38 professional starts at a major, a streak that dates to his 12-shot romp at the 1997 Masters. (Including amateur starts, his majors streak was 39 consecutive made cuts, which matched Jack Nicklaus’ career-longest effort.)
“Unfortunately, I missed this one,” Woods said. “Hopefully I can win the British.”
Woods made bogeys at his final two holes (Nos. 8 and 9) and shot a second 76, missing the cut by three shots. There was a glimmer of hope late in his round that Woods might be saved by the Open’s 10-shot rule (that is, players within 10 shots of the 36-hole leader play on the weekend).
But in a span of a few minutes, Steve Stricker holed a bunker shot at his 36th hole to move to 1 under and Woods made two closing bogeys to slide from 10 to 12 over.
With that, all that was left to do was warm the engines on Woods’ 155-foot yacht, Privacy, which sat afloat in a nearby marina on Long Island Sound.
“I’m pissed,” Woods said bluntly when asked his emotions.
His instructor Hank Haney elaborated on Woods’ performance.
“It was unusual, that’s for sure,” Haney said. “That’s golf and that’s life. He really did come here with high expectations. He thought he was ready to play. It’s hard to explain.”
Woods blamed a good deal of his woes on his putting, as he struggled to find the right speed on greens he termed “slower than usual” for a U.S. Open. When he did manage to make putts, they were mostly for pars and bogeys, as he scrambled, to pull himself from precarious positions.
As he neared the cut line late Friday morning, he made two incredible saves on Nos. 18 (from behind the green) and 1 (from an awkward lie in the thick greenside rough). Woods, who in his five previous majors finished no worse than a tie for fourth and won twice, waited for the singular moment that would turn his momentum and right his course. It simply never arrived.
“I felt like if I just kept going, kept plodding along, I could have turned it around anytime with one putt, or one shot,” he said.
Woods played aggressively from the tee, and when he found only seven of 28 fairways(25 percent) over two rounds, Winged Foot’s West Course extracted a heavy price. He hit 10 greens in the opening round, but without being able to control his spin from the fairway, he seldomly gave himself reasonable birdie opportunities.
He came in after a long grieving period following last month’s death of his father and best friend, Earl Woods, and said at one point he hadn’t touched a club in a month. Nonetheless, he’d been working hard at home in Florida in recent days and proclaimed his game quite healthy. Playing golf from this point forward always will present an emotional tug-of-war, as he’ll forever be thinking of the man who taught him the game.
Woods said he wanted to return to competition when he was ready to win, and said he was. After all, he’d greeted his last two longest layoffs, in 2002 (knee surgery) and 2006 (after a six-week winter hiatus) with victories.
But this wasn’t the Buick Invitational.
“He was confident,” said John Cook, Woods’ friend and Isleworth neighbor. “It was a little bit of smoke and mirrors. You think you’re ready, but there really is no way to prepare for this, except for playing tournament golf.”
To notions he should have returned at the Memorial two weeks ago, Woods had a short response: “I wasn’t ready to play golf.”
Woods never quite seemed in sync at Winged Foot, digging himself into deep trouble right
from the start with three straight bogeys to begin his tournament. He actually played his last six holes of the first round 1 under to shoot 76. He knew he could get right back in the tournament with a round of 68 or 69, but it wasn’t there.
“I didn’t execute properly,” Woods said.
“I didn’t drive the ball all that great, didn’t hit my irons well and didn’t have the speed again (on the greens). So, not a good combo.”
The Hollywood script had Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Open on Father’s Day to honor his dad. But Sunday at Winged Foot, he was nowhere to be found.
Clearly, these are different times for Woods.
“Come Western Open (July 6-9), he’ll be ready,” said Cook. “His game will be on by then. I don’t think he went home to take two weeks off. He went home to work, and we all know how he can work.”