Tiger Woods was already walking his putt in on No. 12, celebrating his fourth straight birdie in the first round of the U.S. Open. He was about to be 2 under par, well within striking distance of the leaders at golf’s toughest major.
Then the ball changed direction. So did Woods, who peeled away from the hole when he saw what was coming.
The putt lipped out. He made par. And then Woods’s round changed direction, too. He bogeyed No. 13. He bogeyed No. 14. He made par at No. 15 and birdie at No. 16, but then he bogeyed No. 17. He yelled at himself on the way to No. 18. Then he hit his first shot into the left rough, his second shot barely off the right rough and his third shot 20 feet from where the second shot had landed. He two-putted for double bogey. He finished at a 3-over 73.
Woods answered six questions afterward. “I just didn’t finish off my round the way I needed to,” he said four times.
He was right to be frustrated. There were times in his prime, he said last month, when he “knew that all I had to do was keep my heartbeat going and I was going to win the tournament.” He cited the 1997 Masters, which he won by a record 12 strokes; the 2000 U.S. Open, which he won by a record 15; and the ’00 British Open, which he won by eight. “I just felt really good and had control of every single shot shape, distance, feels around the greens, putter,” he added. “I had everything rolling.”
He was in his 20s then, a stunning fusion of present and future. Now he is 44, with a spinal fusion in his past.
These days, Woods needs to have everything rolling just to contend. And on Thursday, he didn’t. Once the coronavirus pandemic postponed most of the 2020 golf season, Woods’s chances of winning his 16th major this year suffered. His balky back feels best in warm weather, which he did not get at the PGA Championship at Harding Park in San Francisco, moved from June to August. The Masters has been rescheduled from April to November. And the U.S. Open, moved from May to this week, is being played at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., amid a forecast that calls for a high of 66.
Even if his back holds up, Woods does not have the margin for error he once did. A U.S. Open traditionally calls for precision, with its narrow fairways and punishing greens. “We're not trying to humiliate the best players in the world,” said Sandy Tatum, the chairman of the USGA’s competition committee, in 1974, also at Winged Foot. "We're simply trying to identify who they are." But the USGA has had to make the course a little easier to compensate for the reduced daylight in September. (They can’t have golfers playing six-hour rounds, or they’ll never get through the weekend.)
A score of 3-over would be fine on some U.S. Open days, but not on Thursday at Winged Foot. Leader Justin Thomas has already broken the record for a U.S. Open at Winged Foot, with his 5-under 65, two players made aces on No. 7 and 22 players finished the day at or below par, including four amateurs.
Woods is trying to win this his way: conservatively. When Bryson DeChambeau promised to hit driver wherever he could—“I'm hitting it as far as I possibly can up there,” DeChambeau said before the tournament began—Woods has a different strategy. “I'm trying to play to certain areas,” he said on Tuesday. “Whatever club that is, could be 5-wood, could be driver or a 3-wood. I'm trying to play to a specific spot and then move on from there.” But that approach only works if he can in fact get to the specific spot and then move on from there. On Thursday, he found himself in the rough again and again. Sometimes he made up for that on the green; sometimes his putter deserted him. He has been searching for feel on the greens: Before the tournament, he switched from a Ping grip that he used for all but one of his major titles to a Lamkin grip.
It wasn’t enough. Anything can happen this week, especially as the greens dry out and become even faster and harder than they already are. And this is Tiger Woods, who always seems to have a few miracle shots in his bag. But the USGA’s win probability calculator put Woods’s chances of victory at 0.1%. The leaderboard ahead of him is treacherous. He needs to get everything rolling.