By Thomas Boswell
Friday, June 18, 2010; D06
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF.
Just when Tiger Woods finds his personal life, his golf game and his physical health at the most vulnerable juncture of his career, golf has chosen to give him the fattest, juiciest opportunity he could imagine -- a chance to play the U.S. and British Opens at the two venues where he has had his most spectacular success.
Exactly when he needs them, here come his old friends from the epochal days of the Tiger Slam -- Pebble Beach, backed up next month by St. Andrews-- where he won by 15 shots and eight shots in 2000. What a chance to reclaim his place in the game, repair his imagine, boost his confidence and resume his quest for Jack Nicklaus's all-time record of 18 major championship wins.
Or, with his neck still aching, the polish on his game months behind schedule and his erratic swing the subject of golf-magazine mockery, has the sport simply given Woods a chance to show that, for now at least, he really isn't a Tiger anymore?
If he can't win at Pebble, where he shot a nerve-wracking, no-birdie, 3-over-par 74 in Thursday's first round, or at The Old Course in Scotland, then the door is open for all others to challenge him.
"I three-putted twice and laid up in a bunker [at the 18th hole]. Those are mistakes you just can't afford to make," said Woods, who was proud that he "was very consistent and very patient."
But his whole afternoon was a kind of back-teeth-grinding, don't-show-'em-your-bleeding sort of patience as he sinned by leaving a 10-foot birdie putt short at the 17th hole, then missed a similar par putt at No. 18 to the low (amateur) side.
"Keep plugging along and see where we are Sunday afternoon," Woods said. That's quite a difference from the man who won this same event here by 15 shots a decade ago.
But that's the point. Usually, "plugging along" is an adequate strategy in majors. But it's not what you expect from Woods at either of the classic courses where he has owned everything but the fishing rights. If he goes O-fer the '10 majors, with a zilch at his other favorite track --Augusta National-- already in the books this year, then don't we have to reevaluate everything?
Jack's record? If Woods can't win here or at St. Andrews next month, who says he'll ever pass Nicklaus at all? This month, even the Olden Bear himself, professing faith that Woods will prevail and win at one of these two sites, has stressed their importance in the trajectory of Woods's career.
"Pebble Beach and St. Andrews were important golf courses for him," Nicklaus said of Woods's pursuit of his record. "He basically won on those fairly easily through the years. If he has problems with those golf courses, sure, they won't come around for a while. Maybe it might be tougher."
It's hard to fathom that such a sublime career could, in just two years, come to such a juncture. But it has.
Two years ago, when Woods limped off Torrey Pines after winning the U.S. Open while playing with 111 broken bones, a blindfold and only one club, it seemed inconceivable he'd fail to pass Nicklaus. He only needed five more; he still does. So, you can imagine such a shortfall, though it'd still be crazy to bet on it.
Woods knows exactly what is at stake here. You can see it in his self-controlled walk. Like a tightrope walker, his image seems accompanied by a caption: One step at a time, and don't look down.
By playing irons off several par fours on the 7,040-yard links, he minimized his exposure to danger and gave his round a sense of rhythm. And, given his swing miseries, that may be wise.
In what must be a unique insult for a player still ranked No. 1, Golf Magazine devoted six pages of photos, diagrams and analysis to mocking Woods's swing, likening his mistakes to the standard bonehead blunders of its readers. The message: Whatever you do, Mr. & Mrs. 15-handicap, don't swing like Tiger.
However, Woods's passive game off the tee also left him with only the third birdie-less round of his career in a major championship.
Some in golf actually think a major-less 2010 will define Woods's future. For a century, so many champions have had a monumental choke or defining disappointment that it has become a cliche of the game. But Woods isn't Sam Snead making triple bogey at the 72nd to squander the U.S. Open, or Greg Norman blowing a six-shot, last-round Masters lead.
By this Sunday, or at the British, Woods can regain much of his stature in the game almost immediately and probably glide past Nicklaus, perhaps breaking Jack's record about the time he gets to Congressional Country Club for the '11 Open.
But if he fails to grab either of his summer chances, he may face an agonizing quest that could last a decade.
"Certainly, the venues do set up well and some years they don't," said Woods who, until he actually took the course, exuded good cheer all week, saying he was "very excited" repeatedly.
This good cheer is part of what seems a Woods plan (now sans coaches of any kind) to return to a youthful state of golf grace when he "played the game for fun." This week, he has recollected all the practice games he and his father invented and their rounds at evening, played in a calm that he now seems to apply to himself like a balm. "It's still only a game," he said.
Unfortunately, of all events, perhaps in all sports, the U.S. Open sets as its explicit goal the absolute and perfect removal of anything even vaguely resembling "fun."
"Generally, the Open is the highest rough we play all year. It's the narrowest fairways, the hardest greens, the trickiest pins," Woods said this week. "Other than that, yeah, it's pretty simple."
To appreciate how difficult Woods's task is, remember all the injuries he's coped with since Torrey Pines: knee (ACL reconstruction, the fourth surgery on that joint), Achilles' tendon (torn), leg (two stress fractures), neck (inflamed joint) and face (careless driving).
"The neck is better," said Woods of the latest injury that forced him to withdraw in the middle of the Players Championship. "It's not where I want it, but it's better, no doubt. It does get sore from time to time. But I can recover for the next day. And I haven't had any days where I couldn't go the next day. That's a big step in the right direction."
Let's review: The man who played 91 holes with a broken leg thinks his neck may not hurt so much that he can't play two straight days.
Of course, it's Woods's personal travails that lie behind every aspect of his game. Asked here Tuesday if there was any resolution with his wife Elin, Woods said, "That's none of your business."
Right answer. But how many golfers have answered any question with "none of your business" before playing the kind of nerveless serene golf required to win a major? I'm going with zero.
Pebble Beach isn't Woods's very best course to get untracked. St. Andrews is. And '10 isn't an absolute must season for his Nicklaus quest. But the next three days matter enormously to him. Woods loves this place, this game. Will they love him back or, as seems more likely, remain estranged?