Funny, how fragile the perceptions are about the athletes we watch.
Two days ago, as Tiger Woods addressed his tee shot at the first hole of the Olympic Club’s Lake Course, fans milling around the public concourse set up for the U.S. Open stopped in their tracks to watch him on the video screens. Voices hushed. There’s only one golfer in the world who commands that kind of reverential attention, and he owned a share of the Open lead after two rounds.
The expectations on Woods were both simple and grand. He would execute his game plan with tunnel-visioned determination. While the rest of the players on the leaderboard would succumb to the mental fatigue of managing a course built to agitate them, Woods would comport himself as a pillar of mental strength.
It was as if there was no question he’d win the 15th major championship of his career. The question was: after four rounds, how much distance would Woods establish from the second-place finisher?
But Woods’ dumped his first tee shot in the left rough, took a bogey-5, and never really achieved a rhythm required for momentum. And once he missed a 3-foot putt for par on the eighth green, the day that was supposed to launch Tiger Woods’ major-tournament comeback instead became a day that raised more questions about his future than it answered.
By the time he completed No. 8 on Sunday, the 36-hole co-leader was tied for 35th place at 9-over par. Woods shaved a couple of strokes off that score on the back nine, but not enough to salvage a weekend undone by a 5-over 75 in round three and a 3-over 73 in round four.
You’ve got to wonder: After a golf legend famously adept at holding leads plays the weekend phase of the U.S. Open at 8-over par, how many major-tournament victories are in his future? Ten? Five? None?
For that matter, how many major victories will Woods own when the U.S. Open comes to Pierce County? Early in 2008, when the USGA announced Chambers Bay as the site of the 2015 Open, it was tempting to envision an ulterior history angle featuring Woods and major-victory record-holder Jack Nicklaus, who won 18 of them.
Woods, conventional wisdom once held, either already will have beaten Nicklaus’ record by the time he takes on Chambers Bay, or at least be close. That wisdom no longer is conventional.
Since Chambers Bay was put on the Open schedule four years ago, Woods has won one major – the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he beat Rocco Mediate in an 18-hole playoff that preceded a sudden-death playoff. Woods accomplished that on one healthy leg. He was 32, at the zenith of a career that had made him the most popular athlete in America.
But the guy who hobbled around Torrey Pines to win his 14th major dropped to the fringe of contention Saturday, then dropped out of sight Sunday.
“I was just a touch off, and that’s fine,” Woods said of his 7-over par total for the tournament. There was a time – when he was, oh, 32 or so – Woods wouldn’t have looked at a tie for 21st place as “just a touch off.”
But that time is not now.
“I was still in the ballgame,” Woods insisted. “A lot of positives to be taken away from this week. A lot of positives.”
Woods dismisses the notion that, at 36, he’s approaching that juncture in his career when contending in majors won’t be an anticipation. To emphasize his point, Woods brought up the name of Nicklaus, the improbable 1986 Masters champion.
“Well, Jack did it at 46, right? So I’ve got 10 years. And Watson almost pulled it off at 59,” Woods said a few days ago, referring to fellow former Stanford golfer Tom Watson, denied a victory in the 2009 British Open by a downwind-affected approach shot on the 72nd hole.
“It can be done,” Woods continued. “We can play for a very long time. That’s the great thing about staying in shape and lifting weights and being fit. Playing careers have been extended.”
During Nicklaus’ prime, weight training and aerobic exercises were as foreign to golfers as metal drivers. Yet he won each of the four majors after he turned 36 – Woods’ age – including the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 1980, when he was 40.
As for the 112th U.S. Open, age was not served. Jim Furyk, the 42-year old former Open champion who won his only major in 2003, survived 12 holes Sunday wearing a steely facial expression that conveyed neither angst nor joy. But the closer he got to the championship, his quirky but almost always reliable swing betrayed him.
Between bogeys on 13 and 18 was a bogey-6 on hole No. 16, the result of a 3-wood off the tee that sent the ball hooking into the trees on the far left side of the fairway. It might’ve been the only unforced mistake Furyk made in four days, and it cost him the tournament.
“Two years ago, I was Player of the Year in the United States,” said Furyk. “I played poorly last year, and all of a sudden I’m middle aged. So I’ve got to be honest with you: that ticks me off.
“I think I have a few more good years. I would like to get another opportunity. Whether or not that happens again in a major championship, I don’t know.”
Nor does Tiger Woods. Halfway through the U.S. Open, he was its presumptive champion. By the time Webb Simpson was clutching the trophy emblematic of his third career victory, Woods, winner of 73 PGA tournaments, was nowhere to be email@example.com