PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Among the pantheon of Professional Golfer Platitudes, “That’s the highest number I could have shot today” has to rank near the top. Players love to talk about how they got nothing out of the round, how if they only holed a few more putts, they could have taken it really low.
It’s much, much rarer to hear a player say, “That’s probably the best score I could have possibly managed given how I hit the ball.” Tiger Woods had one of those rounds Thursday at Pebble Beach. It’s a borderline miracle he got into the clubhouse with a one-under 70, a round that puts him in solid position to contend for his fourth U.S. Open and 16th major championship.
“I was trying to just kind of hang in there,” Woods said after hitting just nine of 18 greens. “It was just one of those days.”
He simply refused to make a bogey.
Not on 9, after fanning an approach from the center of the fairway. Not on 11, after missing short in a bunker that you simply cannot miss in. Not on 13, after he hit his tee shot way right and left his approach a solid 30 yards short. And, most incredibly, not after skulling a bunker shot on the par-5 14th, then hacking out to 30 feet.
Woods took some extra time over that putt, gave it a solid whack up the hill and poured it right in the center. Aggressive fist pump. He loved it. So did the crowd. Even Justin Rose couldn’t help but look at his caddy and grin.
“I clipped it,” Woods said. That’s golf speak for I screwed it up. “[Then] was just trying to hack out and take my medicine, walk away with 6. And I made a putt.”
This was a man who was going to shoot under par, whether the golf course liked it or not.
He managed to get it into the house bogey-free, but far from blemish-free. After making a routine birdie 4 to get into red numbers, Woods snap-hooked a 6-iron iron on the par-3 4th.
“Terrible tee shot. I was in between clubs and wasn’t committed.”
Sometimes those types of shots get breaks and you end up okay; other times they hit the cart path and end up in shin-high rough. This was one of the latter. It ended up in the thick stuff, and Woods needed four shots from there en route to a messy double bogey.
Then he remembered he wasn't going to shoot over par today.
He rebounded quicly with a birdie at the par-5 6th then canned the other long putt he drained Thursday, a 30 footer up the hill for birdie at the breathtakingly beautiful par-3 7th. At that point, he had gone four holes without a par. From then on in, he would make nothing but pars. Eleven straight of them, to be exact. Few were routine, including the one on 18. He found the fairway on the par 5 to put himself in, as he puts it, “go zone,” then tugged a 3-wood into a terrible spot next to the lip of a greenside bunker. He needed all his quad strength to support an improvised stance, blasted out to 30-odd feet and two putted.
A solid eight of 11 pars to finish the round required work. But they all count the same, and Woods avoided shooting himself out of a tournament on a day when so many players took advantage of benign scoring conditions. Woods will enter Friday’s round five back of Rose, who weathered a sketchy ball striking stretch of his own before birdieing the last three holes to shoot six-under 65. That ties the best round anyone has ever shot in a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. (The other person to do it? Tiger in 2000, of course).
On one hand, Woods’s ball striking was a far cry from the clinic he put on here in 2000, or the iron stripe-sesh he used to win the Masters, or even the impressive display two weeks ago at the Memorial. On the other, he rolled the rock fantastically (3.8 strokes gained putting) on Pebble’s poa annua greens—not an easy task for him recently—and kept himself in the tournament. The pieces are there; now it’s a matter of putting them all together in the same round.
Whether he can do that will determine if he has a shot to win come Sunday afternoon. If his smiley countenance after the round is any indication, he loves where he’s at. Remember: irons are the best part of Tiger Woods’s game, and he hit his irons terribly, and he still shot under par at a U.S. Open.
Isn't it amazing what a hot putter and some elbow grease and a can-do attitude can accomplish?