In the old days, when Tiger Woods won majors with the ruthlessness
of the grim reaper, he was deadly with two clubs above all
others: the driver and the putter. He buried the best golfers in
the world with them. But he hasn't been nailing any coffins shut
in the majors for--how long has it been now?--an entire year.
Last week at the U.S. Open his putter and his driver buried him.
The fairways at Olympia Fields were so narrow and his driver was
so unreliable that he adopted a very conservative game plan,
using the big stick only a half-dozen times in the first three
rounds, and then six times on Sunday when he was out of
contention. His putter he used far too often, 35 times on
Saturday, the day on which he started just three shots back, the
day everyone expected him to play his way into the lead. On
Sunday he missed his first three putts on the 9th green.
"Luckily I hit the fourth putt right in the middle," he said. He
was never more human than he was at Olympia Fields.
It was a different Woods on display last week, subdued on the
course, responding to his few astonishing shots with wry smiles
and gentle fist pumps. His allergies, always a problem, seemed
worse than usual. He's working on pencil-thin sideburns that
accentuate the Asian in his features. The hair on the top of his
head is bleached yellow, almost making him look like a rightful
member of the tattoo generation. He is, the player guide says,
27. It only seems as if he's been an adult all his life.
Woods finished 11 shots behind Jim Furyk but ahead of his Sunday
playing partner, the enduring Dan Forsman. When the round was
over, Woods flipped his glove to a kid in the stands, signed
Forsman's Titleist visor and talked to reporters, his hands
behind his back like a schoolboy reciting a poem, until the
questions ran dry.
He was not working off his customary script. He praised the
Chicago galleries, even though a fan whistled loudly during the
downswing of his second shot on Saturday, leading to a scruffy
approach when he needed to drill one on a reachable par-5. His
par was like a bogey and his third-round 75 was his highest score
as a pro in a U.S. Open.
Pretournament, he made news off the course, something he is
normally loath to do. He said there were "hot-faced drivers" in
play, clubs that exceed the USGA limits for the so-called
trampoline effect. He didn't name names, but he has no doubts.
"If you're a player, you know," he said. When was the last time
you heard him make a charge like that? Never. Posttournament, he
said every driver should be tested before every round, and that
he had discussed the need to test clubs with Tour commissioner
Tim Finchem. Tiger Woods, activist. Check it out.
He is likely correct about the hot-faced drivers because he's
almost always correct. His golf IQ--like Jack Nicklaus's and Lee
Trevino's--is off the charts. After his level-par round on
Thursday he said the course was difficult. "You guys may think
it's easy because guys are shooting under par, but it's not," he
said. "Trust me." A trust me from Woods may be taken to any bank
nationwide. In the clubhouse bar the Olympia Fields members spent
three anguished days worrying that so many rounds were under par.
By dusk on Sunday, Woods was proved correct. Four players
finished in the red, that's it. Typical U.S. Open. The only weird
thing was that Woods was not among them.
His problem with the driver was "the same old thing," he said.
"My body outraces my arms, and consequently the club drops behind
me." By the 72nd hole he seemed to have the driver figured out.
Downwind and on a dry fairway, he smashed one close to 400
yards--the longest drive of the week on that hole--with his
steel-shafted, 43 1/2-inch-long club. His putting was more
perplexing. In all but the second round he couldn't hit the
uphill putts hard enough and couldn't hit the downhill putts soft
enough. When he won four consecutive majors in 2000 and '01, he
made everything inside 10 feet, or so it seemed to Ernie Els and
Phil Mickelson and all the other world-class players who said
they could do what Woods was doing if they made all their free
Putting is the game within the game, and nobody has ever figured
it out. Putting changes every round, every tournament, every
career. Coming up the 16th fairway, Forsman said to Woods, "If
you don't four-putt the 9th, it's a different day for you."
"You're right," Woods said.
They were both thinking the same thing. On the 9th tee Woods was
one under for the tournament, with 10 holes remaining. If he made
birdies on half the holes, he would have finished at six under
and at least given Furyk something to think about.
Woods was chatty only off the course. On the course he was quiet,
more quiet than usual. He didn't talk much with his playing
partners or with his caddie, Steve Williams, or to himself. He
looked lonesome, and he was.
"If you get it going sideways, the only one to bail you out is
yourself," Woods said, sounding more introspective than he ever
has. "When you're playing great, it's a great game. When you're
playing bad, it's a lonely world out there."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER BRIGHT SPOT Despite a near miss at 18, Woods was in position to strike after Friday's 66.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS SHORT STORY Woods needed 125 putts, including 35 on Saturday, which is almost seven more than his 2003 average.
70 | 66 | 75 | 72 | +3 | 20th
Woods has no doubts that other Tour pros are using hot-faced
drivers. "If you're a player, you know," he said.