On Thursday at Chambers Bay, Tiger Woods shot 80 for the first time in his U.S. Open career.
It came 15 years to the day after Woods completed one of the most impressive performances in golf history, winning the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by a record 15 strokes.
All these years later, Woods was 15 strokes behind after the first round, and it would only get worse. He finished two days of golf on the edge of the Puget Sound at 16 over par and tied for 152nd in a 156-player field.
If the chip yips in February weren’t enough to make you shake your head and if the 85 Woods shot in the third round at the Memorial Tournament two weeks wasn’t mind-bending enough, the nadir may have come Thursday afternoon at Chambers Bay.
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Fighting to break 80 and having stung a good tee shot on the par-5 finishing hole, Woods stood in the middle of the fairway and cold topped his second shot with a 3-wood. It barely got airborne and was fortunate to jump over one fairway bunker before landing in another.
It was uncomfortable to watch.
Woods has never been a sympathetic or empathetic figure, but he’s found an unlikely way to engender both reactions. He can’t play any more.
Not like he once could. Not close.
The question now is whether he can ever get it back.
He keeps talking hopefully about working through his swing issues, relying on his mantra about changing swing patterns and getting caught in old habits. The irony is that’s getting old.
The only thing that’s changed significantly this year is he’s solved the short-game issues that plagued him early in the year, and now he can’t be sure where the ball is going when he hits it. Woods looks like a man in a fight with himself on the golf course.
“All of a sudden now, since a period of October, November or December last year, we’ve seen this precipitous fall of Tiger Woods,” Greg Norman said in his new role of Fox television analyst.
“The tiger’s stripes are really fading and fading fast; he needs to somehow get them back. The only way he can get them back is to do it himself, deep down inside.”
Woods was the top-ranked golfer in the world for 683 weeks. That’s more than 13 years.
By next week, Woods will have fallen out of the top 200 in the world and, if his results don’t change through the summer, he could be out of the top 500 by the fall.
At his worst, Woods is reminding us of how great he was.
You didn’t have to love him, but you had to admire his talent, his tenacity and his pure brilliance. At his best, the game has never seen his equal.
Fourteen major championship wins. Seventy-nine PGA Tour victories. It wasn’t that long ago that it seemed a foregone conclusion he would break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships and blow past Sam Snead’s 82 career victories.
Watching Woods now, those milestones seem impossibly far away.
The question is whether what we’re seeing is temporary or permanent. Woods is insistent – and correct – that he’s struggled each time he’s gone through swing changes, whether it was his initial work withswing coach Butch Harmon or the subsequent moves to Hank Haney, Sean Foley and now Chris Como.
The changes have never come easily, but this looks and feels different. Woods has always immersed himself in the biomechanics of the swing as much as the raw physical nature of it. He can sound like a computer programmer at times.
Years ago, I asked Woods what it would sound like if we could get in his head during a tournament round. He talked about how quiet it is. It must sound like night terrors in there these days.
“At his best he showed us what a human being was capable of. … The apocalypse of imaginative power happens when you turn your game over to someone else and start to look outside of yourself for answers,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said.
“I’m thoroughly convinced that the way to get out of this is to do it on your own. ... If he got away to a (driving) range he’d figure it out on his own. ... That’s how you learn this game, by imitation, and then creation with imagination. ...We know he has the ability, but he’s got so many thoughts in his head.”
As legendary golfer Ben Hogan once put it, the secret is in the dirt.
The question is whether Woods can dig it out one more time.