UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — In those many long moments between shots on a grueling Thursday at the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods leaned on an iron or stood with his arms crossed and gazed forward with an anguished, get-me-out-of-here look. Was he plotting an escape route? If so, he was at the right place. Freight trains rumbled by periodically, slow enough to hop. Puget Sound beckoned as a potential water route out of Chambers Bay. Massive, gaping bunkers — plenty big enough to hide the former best golfer in the world — pocked this lunar landscape.
Instead, Woods rode out his nightmare to the end, trudging off the 18th green and into the darkness of a future that seems very much unknown — at least beyond the near-certainty of a Friday departure. It has come to this in the accelerating twin collapses of Woods’s golf game and his standing in the sport: By the end of the first round of the Open, Woods was among the handful of worst players on the course, grinding it out just to try to avoid shooting 80 — and failing.
The strangest first round of a U.S. Open in history — if for no other reason than it was the only first round of a U.S. Open ever played here — presented golfers with all sorts of new experiences, from teeing off to the chugga-chugga soundtrack of trains to shifting notions of par to, in the case of one former phenom turned icon, an unwanted new career low-point.
The day also presented golfers with an array of options for handling the inevitable frustration and exhaustion, physical and mental, they are facing here on this first-time U.S. Open venue. By the cold facts of the leader board, the best at handling it Thursday were Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson, who held the first-round lead at 5-under-par 65, one shot ahead of Patrick Reed and two clear of Matt Kuchar, Ben Martin and Brian Campbell.
And by the same measure, Woods was among the worst, though his problem wasn’t so much with controlling his emotions as with controlling his wayward driver, which, even given Chambers Bay’s expansive fairways, had him visiting some uncharted corners of the sprawling tract. Woods hit only six of 14 fairways and only half of the 18 greens in regulation. Throw in 36 putts, and that is how you shoot 80 at a U.S. Open, Woods’s worst score in 68 career rounds in this tournament. At the time he tapped in for bogey at 18, only two players trailed him.
“Keep working,” he said when asked where he goes from here. “Keep grinding, keep working. . . . I fought. I fought hard. I couldn’t grind out any harder than that. So that’s just the way I played, and unfortunately it was a high number today.”
At the other end of the spectrum from Woods were two golfers considered among the best on the planet without a major title to their names. Johnson, a 30-year-old bomber, needed a birdie on his final hole — the par-3 ninth — to shoot 63 and tie for the lowest 18-hole score in major championship. Instead, he hooked a six-iron, failed to get up and down and made bogey. Stenson, 39, birdied four of his last five holes — including the 18th, which played as a par-5 Thursday but will play as a par-4 on two of the next three days — to catch Johnson for the lead.
“I like using my imagination on shots,” Johnson said. “It’s always fun to play courses that are different than what you play every day.”
Among the other players who shot under par — and thus are well within striking range of the lead — were Masters champ Jordan Spieth (68), Australia’s Jason Day (68), 45-year-old sentimental favorite Phil Mickelson (69) and 51-year-old Colin Montgomerie (69).
It may have been the most taxing round in the history of the U.S. Open, owing largely to a Chambers Bay layout that requires golfers (and worse yet, caddies) to walk 10 miles with 600 feet worth of elevation changes, plus the generally severe and draining nature of America’s national golf championship.
But Thursday’s rounds were grueling in other ways as well. The opening threesome, with no group ahead of them to slow them down, took a staggering 5 hours 13 minutes to get through its 18 holes; that’s about a half-hour longer than tournament organizers expected. Later groups took even longer. Bottlenecks occurred all over the course. Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, after long waits at 12 and 16, finally erupted after another long wait in the 18th fairway.
After finally getting to hit his approach and watching it go awry, Watson spewed, “Waiting for 30 minutes! This is pathetic professional golf!”
He then declined to speak with reporters after his round, a wild, even-par 70 that featured five birdies but also double-bogeys on 1 and 10.
But it would be wrong to assume Thursday was as difficult and taxing as golf can get. There are still three more days of this tournament, and the abundance of red numbers atop the leader board had players talking about how surprisingly accessible some of the pins were Thursday and how hard they expect the setup to be Friday and over the weekend.
“Certainly if we keep on posting some red numbers, I’m sure we’re going to see a few of those tee boxes moved back and potentially some tricky pins as we move along throughout the weekend,” Stenson said. “It’s a golf course that can be set up as difficult as you want to set it up.”
Clearly, such a notion doesn’t bode well for Woods.
Coming off the 18th green Thursday, he managed to share a laugh — gallows humor, no doubt — with playing partner Rickie Fowler, a pre-tournament favorite whom Woods actually managed to beat Thursday.
Fowler shot 81, a far more shocking development than Woods’s 80.
But he is also 26 years old, with an unquestionably bright future. He will be back on the sport’s biggest stage, but at this point, more so than at any other juncture of his career, it is fair to wonder whether Woods ever will.