After a Busy Couple of Weeks, Woods Is Sleepwalking the Course

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, July 6, 2007

On Tuesday, when Tiger Woods stepped to the podium for his first news conference since the birth of his first child, he looked so exhausted and sleep-deprived, you wanted to laugh. Been there, done that, Tiger. Get used to it.

"Basically, for two weeks, I've just been changing diapers and doing feedings," said Woods, who has averaged only about four hours of sleep a night since college. Before the birth, "People gave me advice: 'Get your sleep.' I was like, 'Whatever, I don't really sleep much.' Well, I definitely don't sleep now. My first night away from home [on Monday], I woke up every 45 minutes. It was: 'Okay, go back to sleep. Oh, okay, it's been six minutes.' That's how the whole night went."

The Tiger-looks-tuckered-out jokes aren't so funny now. In his inaugural signature tournament in Washington, an event to help his charity foundation and one in which he desperately wants to play his best, Woods is in some danger of missing the cut. Oh, he'll probably survive, bleary-eyed, frazzled or not. Bet on Tiger to pull it out. But if he doesn't improve on yesterday's first-round 73, he'll almost certainly be playing host but not playing golf this weekend at Congressional Country Club.

Woods isn't alone among the big names who have to hustle to be among the low 70 and ties. Charles Howell III and Bubba Watson are part of a 16-player tie for 77th place with Woods. At 74, back in a logjam in 93rd place, are Phil Mickelson, starting his recovery from an injured wrist, and Aaron Baddeley. Even Adam Scott (72) may have to play better today to stick around. Surely the gods won't allow three of the top four players in the world to bomb out of Woods's event. Or is the ancient TPC at Avenel curse, on which the least interesting player always seemed to win, still exercising its vengeance?

At least the leader board has two elite names in its five-way tie for the lead at 66: world No. 6 Vijay Singh and No. 3 Jim Furyk, whose caddie Mike "Fluff" Cowan is a Congressional member and reader of these greens. With all due respect to local favorite Fred Funk, one shot behind at 67, it is Woods, Woods and Woods whom fans want to worship here. As even Mickelson volunteered, when asked about his large gallery: "Oh, no, they are here to see Tiger. Let's make no mistake."

And Woods, who spent the evening doing penance on the practice putting green, will do all he can to oblige.

"The tournament's been fantastic. We've somehow put it together in 116 days. The attendance today [more than 18,000] shows that everyone was pretty excited. . . . People are enthused to have golf back" in Washington, said Woods, who added disgustedly, "I ruined it with four three-putts."

Woods was one of many players who were dumbfounded by the rain-soaked greens that played far slower than normal.

"I never got the speed right," he said. "All of my putts I missed were short -- way short, actually. It was a struggle. I worked so hard at the U.S. Open feeding [super-fast] putts, feeding putts to the hole. I didn't practice probably as much as I probably should have last week on my putting, and unfortunately it showed up glaringly."

Probably, Tiger, you shouldn't fret about skipping your putting to adore your new daughter. We probably forgive you.

In fact, Woods may have a unique experience today: thousands of people rooting for him because he needs it.

Normally, Woods doesn't need encouragement on a golf course. Rooting for him to play better is like telling a lion to have a good appetite. It's not advice he needs. You would do better to worry about the gazelle. But Eldrick looks as if he's near the end of his rope. Becoming a father and giving birth to a golf tournament in tandem may finally have frazzled him.

"The golf is the easy part," Woods said of his week here. "The other responsibilities, that's something that you don't normally do."

True to form, the idea of missing the cut appears not to have crossed Woods's mind. Asked if he was "at all concerned" about the weekend, Tiger's instant reaction was to reassure everyone that he still fully intended to win the tournament.

"I've got three days to make it up. You want to be ahead at 72 holes," Woods said. "Hopefully, I can be there in the end."

Woods -- diapered to distraction, hosted until he's toasted and in need of an industrial-size bottle of Simply Sleep -- assumes it's still his event to win, but Mickelson's mind already may be down the road. In his first event since missing the cut at the U.S. Open, Mickelson said his wrist was "okay. It's all right." His no-birdie round simply was due to poor play.

"The course wasn't that hard to keep it around par or under," said Mickelson, echoing many others who said that, aside from tough rough, Congressional was playing as mercifully as it could, with extremely soft greens on which even long-iron shots stuck like arrows.

Assuming Woods responds in customary fashion, he will spend the next three days trying to come back on a Congressional layout that presents a fair challenge, but one that excites a specific type of player: the accurate driver with merely modest power. Firm fairways combined with soft greens is an unusual combination of playing conditions for a famous U.S. Open venue such as Congressional. That's part of the reason that players who are either straight drivers, shaky fast-green putters or both -- such as Funk, Corey Pavin, Greg Owen, Joe Ogilvie, K.J. Choi and Jeff Quinney -- all are at 66 or 67.

"Pretty much every time I hit in the rough, I made bogey," Ogilvie said. "Most people are probably going to do that this week. Then every time I hit it in the fairway, I had a pretty good chance for birdie. This tournament is going to be won or lost by hitting it in the fairway."

How aggressively can you attack the pins?

"Five of my birdies came within 3 1/2 feet," Ogilvie said.

The greatest players, those at the top of the world rankings, almost always putt best on the fastest greens. That's what you always get at major championships. Woods and Mickelson, for example, use their almost magical putting touch to separate themselves. But slow greens often confound their nervous systems so much that they avoid events in which they predominate. Right now, the greens at Congressional and East Potomac may have the same pace. You need a sledgehammer, not a blade. Woods even is considering a different stroke, a different stance, because "what I'm doing is not even close to being right."

Congressional's greens are in lush condition. But you can only cut and roll them so much. Rain and humidity win the battle, and the kind of lightning speed that usually suits this course best simply dies. This verdant version of Congressional, gorgeous to the eye but murder on delicate touch putters, is almost a dirty trick to play on Washington's new host.

In fact, yesterday's sprinkles only turned into a deluge for one brief period, stopping play for 10 minutes. But the downpour arrived just as Woods played the second hole, ensuring that he'd get the slowest greens of the day. What Tiger needs are days of greens-drying sunshine. That's exactly the weather forecast for this weekend -- provided he can get there.

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