The Mud Is Giving Tiger Woods Fits at the U.S. Open

The 109th U.S. Open played at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y.
By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, June 20, 2009


Look, nobody likes the mud at Bethpage. It encrusts the cuffs of players' pants, and makes their shoes smell like dog. But Tiger Woods seems to have more of a problem with mud than the rest of them, a fixation you might even say. It's not just on his pants. It's in his head.

Have his rivals finally discovered a substance that is Kryptonite to Woods? The problem with mud is not that's it's dirty, but that it's unpredictable, and it has clearly introduced an element of chance into the U.S. Open that is unwelcome to Woods. "It is what it is, it's potluck," Woods said glumly after his opening-round 74 left him 10 strokes off the lead. Mud sucked at his spikes and slowed down play, and it clogged the dimples of his ball and made the flight of it fickle. "I had about four mud balls today," he said unhappily.

That Woods hates disarray has always been obvious from his preppy-perfect appearance. You can see it in the neatness of his vests and slacks. He is a self-admitted control freak who even irons his new shirts, fresh out of the bag, so they crease just right. Woods wins major championships with the same meticulousness; he is a fanatic for preparation and predictability, a man who likes to know the answers in advance. He sets his mind on a specific number that is most likely to win, and shoots it. The mud upsets his calculations. He doesn't like guesswork.

Mud makes the golf ball act a little funny. It ruins the physics, makes it "tumble," as Woods says, instead of rotating neatly on a parabola. At Bethpage on Friday it forced Woods to guess, and the result was that, for once, a golf course punished him more than he did it. He took a double bogey at the steep uphill 15th, a 459-yard par 4, when his approach out of the wet rough plugged in the mud atop a greenside bunker. He was allowed a drop, but his tentative chip skipped up the crest, only to curl back down again. "I didn't think it was going to come all the way back to my feet," he said. When was the last time you heard him say something so uncertain?

On the par-4 16th he hit a perfect drive, only to find his ball mud-caked in the fairway. The rule of thumb for a mud ball is that it will fly in the opposite direction from the side that's mud-daubed. Usually. Unless it doesn't. Woods's ball was caked on the left side, so he tried to draw it. That "didn't work out," he said laconically. "It started off draw, and turned into a big slice." Bogey.

"Two bad shots and a mud ball later, here we are," he said. "Four over par."

Rationally, Woods seems to understand that he chose to make his living at an outdoor sport, and mud is the inevitable result when dirt mixes with rain. Still, you get the feeling he'd play golf under a retractable roof if he could. Just notice how often he brings up the subject of mud.

In 2001, he wrote an entire article on it for Golf Digest, entitled, "How to Play the Mud Ball." He mused, "I've played the game long enough never to question the fairness of it. Sometimes, though, I'm tempted -- like when my ball picks up a glob of mud."

A discourse from Woods on the mud of Augusta is practically an annual spring rite at the Masters. In 2002, when he was en route to his second consecutive title he dwelled on the effects of rain after the second round. "A lot of balls had mud on it, one side or the other, and you had to be committed that the ball is going to move with the mud," he said. He was still talking about mud the following year, when he finished tied for ninth. "I caught a few bad breaks," he said. "It's soft and slushy, the wind's blowing, there's a lot of mud balls."

He brought up "mud balls" and the "heaters" they caused at the 2005 Tournament Players Championship, and again in the Buick Open that year, saying, "I know we got a couple of mud balls early in the round, and maybe guys are catching a couple like I did." He was delighted when the TPC finally moved its date from March to May this year, because it meant better weather and fewer you-know-whats. "I didn't like playing here when we caught mud balls all the time," he said earlier this season. "It's not a golf course where you want to have mud balls."

With forecasters predicting more rain inundating Bethpage through the weekend, you can guess what most concerned Woods. "I think the guys who are playing today and tomorrow morning are going to get more mud balls," he said. He debated the best strategy for dealing with it: Should he hit high, and try to carry it, or hit low, and try to roll through it? "If you take the chance of carrying the ball out there, you also have a chance of picking up mud on the ball too," he said.

Woods is hardly the first titan to struggle in the mire. Perhaps he could take some lessons from the past. According to "Mud: A Military History" by C.E. Wood, mud has been a decisive factor in world history. Napoleon postponed his attack at Waterloo to allow the mud to dry, and got beat by Wellington. In November 1942, Russian mud stymied the Germans, who could not advance until the temperature dropped low enough to freeze the mud. Then again, those results are hardly encouraging for a man seeking world domination.

Maybe the best way for Woods to play the mud ball is to quit worrying about it so much. Simply ignore it. Like the rest of us.

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