By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, July 5, 2009
One of the sincere pleasures of having Tiger Woods host the National at Congressional is that we get to watch a titan grapple with a classic course. Woods and Congressional are a meeting of equals; observing him fight his way around this masterpiece of a layout is like watching a couple of heavyweights arm-wrestle. At moments it's hard to tell who's bigger -- the player, or those towering aged poplars.
Just when you think Woods is stronger than Congressional, that the aged par 70 is too old-fashioned for him, the course humbles the best player in the game. The double-bogey 6 sat on Woods's scorecard yesterday like a black eye, a number so swollen it needed an ice pack. Woods was crushing Congressional, stepping on its neck, and drawing away from the field with a three-stroke lead when he came to the 11th tee. It's not often a par 4 turns Woods into a chopper. Put it this way: it made him look like a member.
The 11th is one of the more intricate problems at Congressional. The 489-yard slight dogleg plays as a par-5 for the everyday duffer, but for the tournament it's reduced to a par-4, and it has given Woods fits. Through three rounds, he has played it 4 over: he bogeyed it from a greenside bunker in the first round, bogeyed it again from a fairway bunker in the second round, and yesterday he chummed it up about three different ways.
"It's just added up to a lot of shots," he said.
Take away his performance on the 11th and he would be leading his own tournament by four strokes. When he reached the turn yesterday, it seemed that he was preparing to shut the door on the rest of the field -- and make Congressional seem obsolete while he was at it. He reduced the ninth hole, the enormous par 5 of 602-yards, to a patsy. He ripcorded his drive straight down the center. Standing over his ball in the fairway, he leaned down and firmly retied his shoes, as if to strap himself in. Then he struck a soaring, arching 3-iron that settled 25 feet from the hole. He came striding up the fairway like a colossus, shoulders massive inside his strangely prim, small-collared shirt, his belt cinched habitually tight, and rolled in the putt for a three-stroke lead at 11 under par.
But at the 11th tee he leaned on his club as if it was a walking stick, and crossed his ankles as he stared intently down the fairway. Here's what he saw: a long, crooked, thin-necked fairway, lined closely on both sides by steep sidehills and those immense old trees, black oaks mixed with poplars. In the distance, a tapering green was bordered on the left approach by a row of bunkers, and on the right by a deep lily pond with elephant-ear leaves shivering in a switchy breeze that first seemed to come from one direction, then another. The genius of 11th hole is in its visual intimidation factor. For once, Woods perhaps felt something the everyday golfer does when confronted with a golf hole that might be beyond his means: uneasiness. Uncertainty.
"It's a long hole," says CBS analyst David Feherty, "and it's got that lily pond, plus, it's difficult to pick the wind."
Some holes can get into a player's head -- even a major champion's. "That they can do," Feherty said. "But they don't get in his. They never have."
Perhaps this one has, however. "I don't feel bad on the tee shot," Woods says. Yet twice in the last two days he has missed the fairway. On Friday he missed his drive to the right, and caught the edge of bunker and ricocheted into the sand. Yesterday, he finished surveying the view from the tee, and stepped up and drove dead left. His ball hit a spectator, and came to rest on the side of a steep hill.
"The first day I drove it right in the middle of the fairway, and made bogey," he said. "Yesterday I drove in the right bunker and made bogey, and today I drove it into the left hill, and made double."
When he dug his iron into the deep rough of the side-hill lie, it sounded thick and came out low, and scudded into a bunker 40 yards short of the green. The hole still wasn't done toying with him. Next, he ice-cream scooped his bunker shot, a thoroughly uncharacteristic lapse that suggested how undone he was. It plopped up into the next bunker.
"I hit too far behind the golf ball," he said. " I had to hit closer to the ball and I didn't do it. To be honest with you, it wasn't a very good shot."
Finally, he hit a delicate little out, to about five feet. A red-winged blackbird swooped over the green, chirping. It sounded like a siren. He missed the putt.
Whether Woods can bring the 11th to heel in the final round may well determine whether he wins his own tournament for the first time. The hole has played as the toughest on the course this week for everyone -- with a scoring average of 4.34. But his average score on it is a whopping 5.33. He will have to do something different -- or better.
"Tomorrow I'll probably hit wedge off the tee," he said, to laughter.