The evidence is piling up so quickly you wonder if Tiger Woods is beginning to believe that the greatness of his youth might never be coming back.
On his return to golf at the Masters in April after the self-imposed exile of February and March, Woods was still talking about the win column. He wouldn’t be here unless he thought he could add another major to the haul, same as always, you know the drill.
And then this, a career-high score of 85 on Saturday at Memorial, a tournament he claimed a record five times during the years of plenty. The previous worst of 82 at the Phoenix Open in January that ultimately precipitated his withdrawal at the Farmers Insurance Open the following week was bad enough to force him under cover, admitting that his game was not good enough for public consumption.
On Saturday he was clobbered to the tune of 15 shots by a player who, as a nipper, had Woods’ picture on his bedroom wall, and who in 2000 was in the autograph queue following his victory at the US PGA Championship, his third major victory on the spin en route to the fabled Tiger slam.
“I’ve always wanted to play with him. As a little kid that was kind of my dream,” said Zac Blair after his round of 70. “It was unfortunate to see him not play great.
“I thought he handled it great. He never got outwardly emotional. I don’t think he ever got disrespectful out there. And he was always super courteous to me and friendly. It was nice to see that.”
So it has come to this. Instead of taking home the bacon, Woods is left with the sympathy of a 24-year-old PGA Tour rookie. And no kind of consolation will that be for the greatest player of the age.
For the first time in this period of rapid decline and uncertainty, Woods looks old. The tired eyes were those of a boxer who had taken too many blows. They begged the question how much more he might endure before withdrawing into the shadows again.
Woods left Muirfield Village in silence on Saturday, declining to speak to the media. What was there to say after his third career score in the 80s?
The quadruple bogey at the last was a microcosm of all that is wrong with his game, errant off the tee and desperate around the greens, where the once gossamer feel has given way to the touch of a baby elephant. His tee shot went left, coming to rest in the creek that borders the fairway. He was short of the green with his approach, then caught his chip fatter than an 18-handicapper, watching it roll back down the hill further away from the hole than it started.
There was more butchery to follow, chunking his next attempt into the greenside bunker, from where it took three to get the ball in the hole. Woods must have wanted to follow the ball into the cup and disappear. Cast adrift on 12 over par, six worse than his nearest competitor, Lucas Glover, and a massive 27 strokes behind Justin Rose at the top of the leaderboard, Woods was labouring like a Formula Two car in a Formula One race.
Rose was almost lost for words when invited to explain away a round from Woods that was 19 shots worse than the 66 he posted to lead overnight by three strokes. “Obviously that’s a tough round to swallow,” he managed. “You can’t really blame the weather or this or that. It’s a course he’s played well on. I’m not sure I have any advice really at this point.”
And there was one more round to play.
On Sunday, Woods faced the ultimate indignity, forced to endure the walk of shame, playing alone in the role of “dew sweeper”, first out on the course before the leaders had even broken bread.
This was not the scenario any envisaged when Eldrick Tont Woods was redrafting the game’s parameters 15 years ago. Back then he was not of us, not of this earth, but a super-being from another planet with no discernible weaknesses.
It is a job to identify a strength as the second major of the year beckons at Chambers Bay next week. Of all the majors the US Open is the most exacting, one that demands the greatest command of all the clubs in the bag. The course, on America’s Pacific North-west, already comes with a health warning, issued by championship director Mike Davis, who promises doom to all those who fail to acquaint themselves properly with a track the pros have yet to experience.
With four to play, Woods was one under par; then boom, he double-bogeyed the 15th and the last to come home in 40 and finish with a 76, a score that once would have triggered an inquest. Here it was a comparative triumph.