PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Tiger Woods signed the kind of scorecard that wins a lot of U.S. Opens on Friday. Unfortunately for Woods, this isn’t one of those U.S. Opens. Woods finished with 15 pars, one birdie and two bogeys on a day when the wind was gentle, the course was soft, the seals were happy, the birds were chirping, love was in the air, peace was in our sights, and …
Q. Tiger, are you steaming?
TIGER WOODS: Yeah, I am. Not a very good finish.
He finished bogey-bogey. He is one under par. Woods is not out of it—one of his playing partners, Justin Rose, had the lead at seven under—but he is not as in it as he should be. He saved his Thursday round with some fortunate misses and some unconscious putting. On Friday, the group of Rose, Woods and Jordan Spieth made 11 birdies. Woods accounted for one of them.
Still, he did a masterful job of grinding for most of the day. But the first half of this U.S. Open was not a grinder’s paradise. A bit of rain made Friday’s rough thicker and gnarlier than it was Thursday, but there were still birdies to be made. Woods is perhaps the best ever at understanding how a course is playing on any given day and knowing what he needs to get from it. He knows there are days when one over moves you up the leaderboard at the U.S. Open, and he knew this was not that kind of day. It was a day when a creative, disciplined shot-maker can shoot a 65. Woods shot 72.
“So important to be below the hole,” he said afterward. “I had a couple opportunities there. Just a couple. But overall I kept missing above the hole.”
Spieth had the kind of day you don’t normally see at a U.S. Open. He had five bogeys. His shot out of a bunker on No. 2 hit a rake, then was so embarrassed it basically hid from him, leading to one of those bogeys—and recovered well to make 5. All of this would have sent him home for the weekend at a lot of Opens, and that’s what happened to him at Shinnecock last year.
But somehow, he played himself into contention. Spieth birdied five holes on his front nine (Pebble’s back, as the group started on No. 10). He is now one under for the week.
“If I were one under with two birdies and one bogey … I wouldn't be as optimistic about the weekend,” Spieth said. “Making that many birdies is really nice. It's easier for me to limit the mistakes than it is to try and force birdies.”
Spieth was not referencing Woods. But the words described Woods pretty well.
This has frankly been like a lot of the majors Tiger didn’t always win back in the day. He did have those weeks, you know. He would show up ready, having recently won a major. And he wouldn’t play terribly, but he wouldn’t play great, and he would find ways to salvage pars here and there, and he would lurk just close enough that for a couple days you would expect him to make a charge, and after a while you would realize it just wasn’t his week. He disguised it because when other players didn’t have it, they shot 76, and when he didn’t have it he shot 72, and because he was always convinced he could get back in contention.
This week has been like that. Thursday, Woods’s putter saved him. Friday, he just didn’t play well enough. He walked down his last hole, the par-4 9th, after his tee shot, holding his driver, which had just deposited his ball in a left bunker. He had a great lie. He wisely decided to lay up. He pulled the shot into the rough and made bogey. The field is too good for even Woods to win with many shots like that.
Woods needs two things to happen now. One is that he has to go low on Saturday. He said the way Pebble Beach is playing, “You have your opportunities in the first seven holes to get after it. After that, it’s plod away.” So we should know early Saturday if he has a chance. And then the second thing must happen: the leaders have to stay still or move backwards.
Woods has surely examined all possibilities. He talked about the marine layer lifting and the course being faster and how “scores will continue to back up.” He needs to move forward. He had his chance Friday, and he didn’t take advantage of it.