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Mike Kern: Tiger’s Sunday at U.S. Open a disaster

By Mike Kern, Philadelphia Daily News –

SAN FRANCISCO — This is all you needed to know about the Tiger Woods U.S. Open experience Sunday afternoon at the Olympic Club: By the time the leaders had teed off at 3:10 local time, your 36-hole co-leader was in the process of bogeying the sixth hole, which already put him at six-over par for the fourth round, 10-over in the championship that he’s won three times, and increased his deficit from five strokes to 11. As if that mattered anymore.

Where do you go from there?

Remember the times, which seem like so long ago, when by far the best golfer of the last quarter-century never relinquished a 36-hole lead, especially at a major? You can look it up. But that was pre-Y.E. Yang. And, of course, it was the former Tiger. He hasn’t been that fellow in a while. His life has changed greatly since he won the latest of his 14 majors at the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines, where he had to play 91 holes on one leg that had basically turned into tapioca. As the haters will tell you, most of those changes were self-inflicted. Fair enough. But wasn’t golf a better place when the certainty of Tiger meant we could pretty much start writing our Sunday lead at the end of play on Friday? He knew it. Most pertinently, so did everybody else, whether you liked what he was or not.

On Thursday and Friday, Tiger, who was coming off his second victory of the season, played in the marquee threesome with five-time Open runnerup Phil Mickelson, this generation’s 1-A golfer, and the almost-as-popular Bubba Watson, who just got his first major in April at the Masters. The last two times Tiger had played with Phil the first two days of a major, at the 2006 PGA and Torrey Pines, he left with the trophy. So much for that streak. On Saturday, Tiger was in the final group, alongside frequent Ryder Cup partner Jim Furyk, and things didn’t pan out nearly as well. Then he went out Sunday with Casey Wittenberg, an hour and 20 minutes before he would have preferred. But as Tiger has learned a lot lately, you can’t always get what you want. And as he found out Sunday, it can go south in less time than it takes to run your ride into a neighbor’s front yard.

When the former Stanford Cardinal from right down Highway 101 arrived with the incoming fog at the first tee, he was met with the usual barrage of support. It wouldn’t last. How could it? For the second straight day, he drove it into the rough on No. 1, this time on the right side. From there he again could only pitch out well short of the green and wound up settling for a bogey. Not the kind of start he needed. It would only get worse. Much, in fact. On the second he switched from a sweater to a vest. Didn’t help. Another missed green, another dropped stroke. At the par-3 third, he came up short once more, into a tough lie in the front rough. His wedge out rolled long off the putting surface. He didn’t even appear to take his time on the next shot, and left that short coming back up the slope. The putt missed for a double bogey.

The buzz was gone. So were his chances, which to be honest probably weren’t all that reasonable anyway since he’s never come from behind after 54 holes to win a grand-slam event. But couldn’t he have at least teased us into the back nine? While it’s true that the first six holes are the toughest stretch on the course, it nonetheless was borderline hideous. Even by, say, Marc Warren standards. No offense intended. But we are talking about the guy who’s supposedly chasing Jack Nicklaus on the posterity list. So this wasn’t any old train wreck. It was nuclear. Woods looked like he couldn’t get to his private jet fast enough.

How low did it go? On 4, Tiger finally dropped one in there about 15 feet from the cup. Yet all it managed to produce from the gallery was polite applause. They, like him, understood it had become a lost cause. Those omnipresent “Go Tiger” cheers appreciably subsided. This was not a day for fist pumps. It was mostly replaced by head shaking, as he walked stoically alone with his thoughts, hands in pockets, a forlorn figure for sure. It was hard to imagine this was the same guy who looked so in control of his stuff fewer than 48 hours earlier. At least he managed a hint of a smile when he birdied the 8th. By then it was nothing more than a detail. Even the NBC cameras had lost interest. The flames could probably be seen in Sausalito.

The irrelevant news was that he did steady himself to shoot 3-over 73 to finish at 287. He didn’t have a bogey on his closing 12 holes. Wittenberg, by the way, had a 70 for 285.

This was Tiger’s worst weekend at this major since 2004, when he went 9-over (73-76) to tie for 17th at Shinnecock Hills. He has played in 12 majors since Torrey Pines, having missed four with injuries. He finished in the top six a half-dozen times, but only once in his last six. He was never a factor at Augusta National in April, where he tied for 40th after also winning in his previous start.

In addition to the two victories in 12 starts this season, he has three other top-fours. Both wins did come on courses where he has lifted the trophy countless times before. Almost every other player would take that kind of first half. He’s not one of them. His bar has been elevated to a whole different standard. And at this juncture of his Mount Rushmore career, four weeks each year are his absolute measurement. At 36, you’d have to think he has more major titles in him, plural, just because. But until he gets at least one closer to Nicklaus’ Holy Grail target of 18, there will always be a growing degree of skepticism. As well there should be. This, for someone who won seven majors in a span of 11 from 1999-2002.

The next chance presents itself a little over a month from now at the British Open, which returns to Royal Lytham & St. Annes for the first time since 2001, when Tiger tied for 25th after capturing the previous four majors. He’s also won that Open three times, but not since 2006. He has won the PGA – which in August will be played on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (S.C.) for the first time – four times, but not in five years.

The saga’s next move continues to rest clearly on him. How heavily, only he knows best.

Before exiting stage left, Woods said he didn’t feel as if this represented a wasted opportunity.

“Boy, you could say that of a lot of tournaments, can’t you?” he reasoned. “I finished close in major championships before. I had a chance this week and I’ll get after it in another week in D.C. (at his AT&T National) …

“There’s a lot of positives this week. Hit the ball really well. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the speed of the greens until today. But overall, the way I struck it, controlled it all week, is something that’s very positive going forward. I’m excited about the consistency. If I just would have hung in there a little bit better yesterday, then I would have been in a better position going into today.

“I was just a fraction off, a couple yards here and there, and that’s all it takes. You pay a price.”

And you transform into a footnote, albeit the headliner of the bunch. We’ll catch up over in Great Britain.

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