Yesterday's 75 in the first round of the USPGA Championship was the world No1's worst start ever as a professional to a major and it brought the prospect of him missing his first cut as a professional in a major into startling focus.
This is Woods' 36th major since he joined the millionaire ranks in 1997 and many here were considering it a certainty that he would add it to the two he has already won this year to cap a season that would, in pure statistical terms at least, be the finest major season in history.
But on a day when Ben Curtis, the 2003 Open champion from nowhere, reacclimatised himself with the upper echelons of the leaderboard, the only certainty here was the sun that sent the temperatures soaring over the 100-degree mark. Conditions were just what they had promised to be, perfect, but the scoring was anything but, as Colin Montgomerie also joined Woods - his St Andrews conqueror - at the wrong end of the 70s with his round of seven over.
Not everybody struggled that much, and the performances of two young Englishmen, Ian Poulter and Luke Donald, gave more than a little hope that the 75th anniversary of the last European to win the USPGA might be the ideal time to lay to rest Tommy Armour's ghost. Their respective 69s took them to within two of the early clubhouse leaders, Curtis and South Africa's Trevor Immelman, and Poulter, in particular, appeared extremely confident that his extraordinary finish yesterday of four birdies in his last five holes would at last put him into contention in a major.
"This probably represents my best start ever to a major," he said, "especially coming back from being three over after the 13th".
Poulter was unaware as he uttered those words that exactly the reverse was true for Woods - whose previous worst start to a major had been four over at the Masters in 2003 before finishing in a tie for 15th - and even if he had, he would not have dared to discount Tiger's chances. At Augusta this year, he began with a 74 and still managed to come back to beat Chris Di Marco. "Write him off at your peril," said Steve Elkington, who was one off the early lead after a 68.
Nevertheless, this did not resemble the Woods of 2005 - two majors already in his bag and a second place in the other - but more the Woods of 2003 and 2004. Having preached the gospel of accurate driving being a holy necessity around Baltusrol, the 29-year-old proceeded to make the devil's mess of his front nine (he started on the 10th) by veering off the straight and oh-so narrow with impunity.
Straight off the bat, his ball was hurtling for the rough stuff on the 478-yard 10th and his errant driving was to cost him another bogey five holes later when he was again forced to chop out of the clinging Kentucky bluegrass that flanks every fairway here like the grimmest-faced sentry guards. The Tiger wasn't prowling. He was scowling.
Never more so, in fact than on the par-five 18th (his ninth) when he arrived at his drive on the edge of the ditch that crosses the fairway. The world No 1 looked at his lie and, thinking somebody may have trodden on the ball, asked if he might be entitled to a free drop. The answer was a resounding "no", so as is the way for the mollycoddled professional, he asked for a second opinion. "Er, that's another no," he was told and the bogey he then ran up was probably as much down to his bristling temperament as the penalty shot he had no choice but to take.
The gasps were not all his, however, as no-one in the New Jersey area, or beyond, had expected to see the 2-1 favourite six shots behind halfway through his first round and, as he had already negotiated the supposedly easier part of the course, there could be more mini-disasters to come. There were, on the par-three fourth, but that four on that merciless green that slopes away from the tee was nothing on the horrors that awaited him at the seventh.
One of two par fours that stretch beyond the 500 mark, the third-from-last hole was having something of a morning having yanked the early leader Mike Weir back to the field with a triple bogey seven. Its biggest victim, though, was certainly Woods as the double bogey gave a decidedly sinister look to an already evil card. It was prettied up a touch by a birdie from five feet on the eighth (his 17th) but the way in which he slumped his shoulders as he tapped in for par on the last showed how ugly he thought it was.
It could have been worse, he could have been Montgomerie, who not only had to deal with a bad case of mistiming, as well as a hand injury, but also had to suffer the torture of having "Jakartagate" brought up again. A British tabloid had reported that Darren Clarke would not be playing under Montgomerie's captaincy in next month's Seve Trophy in Billingham as a reaction to the "wrong drop" controversy that Montgomerie was embroiled in at the Indonesian Open in March. After a 73, the Ulsterman was at pains to deny the story, saying: "That was all dealt with at the time. As far as I'm concerned, it's over." If only.
USPGA Championship (Springfield, New Jersey) Early leading first-round scores (US unless stated): 67 T Immelman (SA), B Curtis. 69 I Poulter (GB), T Purdy, H Sutton, J Leonard. 70 M Calcavecchia, C Howell III, J Kelly. 71 L Roberts, R Philo jnr, B Tway. 72 J Furyk, M Weir (Can). 73 J Durant, J Kaye, N Dougherty (GB), R Johnson (Swe), J Maggert, R Pampling (Aus), S Maruyama (Japan). 74 A Atwal (Ind), S Dodd (GB). 75 B Ford, C DiMarco, T Woods. Selected: 76 J M Olazabal (Sp). 77 C Montgomerie (GB), D Duval. 79 T Levet (Fr).Reuse content