A day when Tiger looked mortal and bewildered

Sometimes the genius of the Tiger has failed. Seven years ago some way east of here in Muirfield it was blown away, but there was a storm of biblical proportions going on when he shot 81 on the third day of that Open.

Never before, though, have we seen it collapse piece by piece, level by level, and to such an extent that watching it happen became nothing so much as a cruel act of voyeurism.

It was hard not to tremble for the man who is generally agreed to be the greatest golfer who ever lived when he seemed to be trailing out of the 138th Open last night because this was more than defeat. This was an assault on something about which for so long there has been abundant reason to believe is the most secure psyche in any branch of professional sport.

Of course the Tiger could lose – it is the nature of a game that is so sensitive to form and conditions, and which by and large is played by individuals easily identifiable as human beings. But he was, we had come to believe, in a category of his own.

If he lost it was not a catastrophe but a spur to greater deeds, more astonishing flights of virtuosity, and this was also true when he had a bad day – as he did here on Thursday with a one-over par 71 that left him seven shots off the pace.

But seven shots? What were seven shots to Tiger Woods at the end of the first day of a major tournament, the ultimate level of golf at which he has succeeded 14 times, just four less than the great Jack Nicklaus who won his last title at the age of 46?

When he won the US Masters for a sixth time, Nicklaus was 13 years older than the Tiger last night as he tried to brace himself against the possibility of recoiling from only his third missed cut at this level of the game he has dominated since he won his first Masters green jacket 12 years ago.

Thirteen years seemed at least the time Tiger had to make a molehill of the greatest collection of trophies in the history of the game and, still, when we reminded ourselves of the astonishing talent which suddenly went missing last night, that still had to be the most feasible of possibilities.

But first there has to be an absorption of the shock that overtook the great golfer and the rest of the game when he drove, yet again to the right, at the 10th tee last night. He was already tumbling into a rare crisis with bogeys at the eighth and ninth holes. These carried him to two-over par and perilously close to the projected cut-line of four-over but then it was impossible to imagine he would be so engulfed when his ball was lost in a trampling crowd and he was forced to play a provisional into the 10th green and a crushing double bogey.

The bewilderment re-doubled at the 12th when he bogeyed after finding a bunker from the tee and then there was another disaster at the 14th when he double-bogeyed again – this time after watching a chip from the right of the green slide back down the slope and then skitter further away from the hole.

It was at this point that a rare expression crossed the face of Tiger Woods. It wasn't anger, it wasn't concern, it wasn't even apprehension. It was disbelief. It was the sense that his world, all the certainties upon which he has built his fabulous reputation, were sliding away before his eyes.

Yes, twice before he had missed a cut in a major but the first time it happened he was a 20-year-old amateur contending in the Masters and the second, three years ago in the US Open, he was still emotionally bruised by the death of his beloved father Earl.

Last night, the threat to his presence in a tournament he has won three times was created by a rather more tangible problem. It came from his inability to make the kind of running adjustments to his game that so often have retrieved a challenge for one of the great titles – and at the very least preserved his presence – and the possibility of one of his extraordinary charges to the finishing line.

Last night there was some doubt whether he was in fact doomed when he rallied with birdies at the 16th and 17th holes but such hope was based largely on the possibility that half a dozen players at the margins of the tournament were suddenly afflicted with the crisis that bore down on the Tiger so dramatically when his ball sailed off the 10th fairway and into deep rough.

The odds seemed as long as those which would reasonably have been placed against Woods landing in such a predicament and, anyway, there was another question that was almost as baffling as the sudden failure of a game that we believed could be re-gathered often by the simple device of an act of will.

It asked how was it that Tom Watson at 59 could do so much to recreate the glory of his 1977 victory here over Nicklaus in conditions which so reduced the man about whom he had said just 48 hours, "there is no question in my mind that he is the greatest player golf has seen – and Jack Nicklaus has admitted it too"?

How could the Tiger shrivel as Old Tom Watson found so much of a game that was once good enough to carry him to eight major tournament wins? Watson faced a version of the Tiger's crisis when he shed four strokes in the outward nine. But no confusion came to the face of the ageing man from Kansas. He was able to gather together once more the best of his talent and produce a series of brilliant putts, including one of 75ft on the 16th green, to gain a share of the lead.

The Tiger, almost certainly, was heading home. It was not easy to believe, and nor will it be for quite some time. Perhaps, indeed, as long as it takes him to reassure the world that the greatest of his talent has not indeed begun to seep away.

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