Then, though, the most prominent name with the most recognizable face took a hideous swing, and it was once again impossible to look away.
Bradley, a PGA Tour rookie who grew up in Vermont, and Dufner, a journeyman who has never won on the PGA Tour, share the lead at the PGA Championship at 5-under-par 135. There are big names lurking, from Jim Furyk to Adam Scott to Lee Westwood, with half the tournament remaining. But once Tiger Woods stood with his left foot on a grassy slope and his right in a greenside bunker at the 11th hole, a lopsided legend, he was mesmerizing, no matter how grisly the scene.
Woods took a hack — and so many times here, that’s just what he did — and then turned away as the breeze carried the spray of sand back into his face. He wouldn’t have wanted to see the result anyway, because the ball landed on the green and then scampered off it, into the water beyond.
At the next hole, he pulled his drive into the woods on the left, chopped one out across the fairway, then dead-yanked the following shot back into those same woods, and deep. That exchange — double-bogey 6 at No. 11, double-bogey 7 at 12 — left him reeling.
Twenty-five players within five shots of the lead — not to mention injured U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy, who managed a 73 with a heavily wrapped right wrist — will try to decipher this demanding layout over the weekend. Woods, though, would head home after rounds of 77-73 left him at 10 over. He missed the cut by six shots, and is still very much in search of his game.
“Obviously, frustration, disappointment, that I’m not contending in the tournament,” Woods said. “So, next time.”
But when will the next time be? Woods isn’t qualified for the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs. The next event he’s committed to is the Australian Open — in November.
“That’s what it’s going to be,” he said. “I got some time off again.”
Including the weekend. In 56 majors as a professional, this is just the third time Woods has missed the cut. The others, though, didn’t seem ominous. In 2006, at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, he was still grieving after his father’s death that spring; his consecutive rounds of 76 were easily dismissed, forgiven. In 2009, at the British Open at Turnberry, he was in the midst of a season in which he won six times on the PGA Tour, so missing the cut by a shot seemed a fluke.
But after a four-month period in which he played just nine competitive holes because of injuries to his left knee and Achilles’ tendon, Woods hasn’t been able to summon anything positive with any semblance of consistency, and the results are striking. Five club pros, invited by the PGA of America, finished ahead of Woods here.
“I showed signs that I can hit the ball exactly how I know I can,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t do it enough times.”
So the tournament will play on without him, and it could well be intriguing. The last six majors have all been won by first-timers, and there’s reason to believe that trend could continue this weekend. Of the top 25 on the board, the slumping Furyk — who appeared from nowhere with a 65 to get to 4 under — joined Davis Love III and Trevor Immelman as the only previous major champions. Those last six majors have been won by players from outside the United States, but of the top 10 here, only Australia’s John Senden and Denmark’s Anders Hansen are not Americans.
Not that such trivia mattered to those competing. As difficult as the Highlands Course was on some competitors, it could be had. Bradley, the 25-year-old nephew of LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, stood over a birdie putt at No. 8, his 17th hole of the day, thinking one thought: 62.
“I probably shouldn’t say this,” Bradley said. “. . . I’m thinking, ‘Boy, if I could make this, 9 is a birdie hole, and I’ve got a shot at this.’ ”
Why not? Stricker had tied the major championship record with 63 Thursday. But Bradley missed the birdie putt and finished with a 64. Dufner, a 34-year-old who has missed the cut in his last four events, nearly matched that when he holed a 15-footer on the ninth, his final hole, for a 65. Senden, Furyk, Points and Verplank all sit within one. Stricker, the overnight leader, stumbled to 74 on Friday but is still just two back.
Yet Friday, that mishmash of names atop the leader board couldn’t overshadow the man who tied for 116th. Woods’s final act here: a 4-iron from a bunker alongside the 18th fairway, 236 yards away. It splashed into the water, not to be found again. The larger question: When will the man who hit it find his game?