US Open: All eyes still on Tiger but the world No 1 dogged by hints of mortality in majors

 

Merion

It’s a long time since Tiger Woods began a competitive round at nearly tea-time and was still playing at 8.19pm when there was a hint of rain in the air and darkness was all around. It is a long time since Woods finished a round the better part of 17 hours after he had started it.

As opening rounds go, a 73, three over par, was by no means a bad start by Woods, who, as usual, dragged a large crowd around this dampened, gluey course.

It was six strokes worse than Phil Mickelson’s opening score but Woods probably thought it was early days. Still three rounds to go, he thought to himself.

He three-putted twice, missed a few others but, positive as ever, said he was not displeased. When your round is interrupted by a night’s sleep, when you play 10 holes one day and eight the next, a sense of jerkiness is inevitable.

The more so when less than two hours after you finish your first round, you are required to start your second, which was Woods’s lot yesterday morning. At times like this you might well wonder: ‘which day is it, which round am I playing and what hole am I on?’

Woods needs no reminding that he has not won a major championship for five years but others may have forgotten that it was at Torrey Pines, San Diego, in June 2008 that Woods won the US Open. Talk about water under the bridge since then. A torrent has passed. His four victories on in the US this year are more than anyone else. That much suggests the old Woods is back, at least in Tour events.

His occasional uncertainty off the tee and the demonstrations of bad luck and errors on the putting green that were present in his first round indicate that the old Woods is not back in major championships. Will he ever be? Will he equal Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 victories in professional major championships or even exceed it? It is getting harder by the day.

Once upon a time, Woods’s ball would not have pitched into the tufty grass overlooking a bunker, as it did on the 17th. It would have rebounded into the sand and presented him with a much easier shot, less delicate than the one he faced as his round neared its end yesterday.

He had his left leg out of the bunker, his right leg in it, and his ball was resting on a tall clump of grass, perhaps three inches off the ground. A shank was not out of the question. Nor was his clubhead passing completely under the ball and moving it only a few inches.

Actually, that is precisely the sort of position Woods in his pomp often found himself in. What wouldn’t have occurred before is what happened to Woods’s next shot this time.

His deft pitch, hit high to make sure it landed softly, caught the soft grass adjoining the 17th green perhaps six inches short of the spot at which he was aiming. The result was its progress ended immediately.

Had it gone that little bit further it would have landed on the green and begun a slow, downhill journey  towards the flagstick. Indeed, it might have ended in the hole.

Woods groaned audibly as he saw that he had missed his target by the width of one of his hands. That is the sort of thing that has always happened to mortals but rarely did so in the past to Woods.

Then, he would have brought off the deft recovery, landed the ball on a sixpence and probably saved his par. Now, he can’t, just as those putts that he used to will into the hole no longer obey his wishes.

No one hits the ball with such obvious downward force and clear venom as Woods but a lot players putt better than he does now. 

Nothing though diminishes his appeal. He was in a threesome that included Rory McIlroy, the world No 2, and Adam Scott, the heart-throb Aussie who won the Masters and is now ranked third in the world.

You could hardly ask for anything better than the three highest-ranked golfers in the world attacking a venerable golf course and barely managing to hold their own against it.

But most spectators had eyes only for Woods. “Where’s Tiger?”  “It’s Tiger!” “Who’s Tiger playing with” were comments you heard if you followed Woods. It’s a Woodscentric world all right.

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