Aman in the gallery wearing a tiger cos- tume Sunday at the Olympic Club recalled an earlier time. Dur- ing Tiger Woods’ first turn at the top, a decade or so ago, there were often fans
in such outfits cheering on the golfer who all but performed
wearing a red cape. The get-ups then drew a smile from the
sport’s dominant big cat, but en route from the fifth green
to the sixth tee during the final round of the 112th U.S.
Open, Woods, grim-faced, didn’t look up or break stride as
he walked within an arm’s length of the ardent supporter.
It was no wonder Woods ignored the faux feline, because
at that juncture—five over for the day and a stunningly
distant 10 strokes out of the lead he had shared through 36
holes—his play was a shadow of the excellence that originally inspired this mania. He would bogey No. 6 too, scrambling
for a 5 after his double-crossed drive was so far left it nearly
finished in the adjacent 11th fairway. Going back to a desultory finishing trio of holes the previous afternoon, Woods
was eight over for his last nine holes.
Woods stabilized his scorecard the rest of the final round,
going three under for the final 12 holes, but that was akin to
boarding up windows after a hurricane. The damage had
been done. A 71-71 (two over) weekend would have gotten
Woods into a playoff with winner Webb Simpson, but the
36-year-old shot 75-73, his worst closing 36 holes in the U.S.
Open since 2004. The third round was particularly costly to
Tiger, given that 13 players broke par, there were only eight
scores higher than his and that he has never won a major
when trailing after 54 holes.
His T- 21 finish at 287 marked the 12th major championship Woods has played without a victory—he also missed
four others in that span because of injury—since capturing
his 14th professional major title at the 2008 U.S. Open. It
is the longest lull of his career and equals the most lengthy
such pause of Jack Nicklaus’ prime, which occurred be-
tween the 1967 U.S. Open and 1970 British Open.
Eclipsing Nicklaus’ 18 major wins is Woods’ professional
raison d’être, and when he won the Memorial two weeks
before the Open with commanding ball-striking and the kind
of mojo moment—a stupendous birdie flop shot on the 70th
hole—that typified his best days, he looked poised to narrow
the major deficit for a couple of reasons.
The Sean Foley-taught swing seems to have been absorbed, making Woods less mechanical and more reflexive
and athletic in competition. John Novosel, the co-author
of Tour Tempo and Tour Tempo 2, maintains that tour pros
play best when their backswings consistently take three
times as long as their downswings. As Novosel’s collaborator, John Garrity, wrote on golf.com during the U.S. Open,
a dozen years ago Woods’ tempo was remarkably consistent; the past few years, as he tweaked his swing, it often
has varied—he had disparate tempo ratios during the 2012
Masters, where he was T- 40. At Memorial and during
the first two days at Olympic, Novosel observed through
video-frame measurement that Woods’ tempo once again
had the three-to-one ideal. (Woods’ swing is slightly faster
than in 2000, but to Novosel the ratio, not the speed, is
what really matters.)
Woods professed pre-tournament fondness for the firm,
rigorous conditions at Olympic. “When the golf course gets
harder and faster, it is certainly something I like,” he said.
“I’ve always enjoyed [it] when the golf course got a little
more difficult and became more fun because you had to
control more things within you.”
Up to that challenge on Thursday, Woods crafted a
precise 69 to wax the other members of his glossy group-
ing, Phil Mickelson ( 76) and Bubba Watson ( 78). “That was
beautiful to watch,” Watson said of Woods, who hit 10 fair-
ways (often using long irons) and 11 greens. “Every shot, he
shaped it the way he wanted to shape it.” Woods validated
his 69 with a second-round 70 that, given a swirling breeze
and an even firmer Lake course, was every bit as pleasing
to him. “It’s one thing to game plan,” Woods said, “but you
also have to execute the game plan.”
The shotmaking, however, didn’t measure up to the strat-