It’s is OK to root for Tiger Woods. It is even OK to love him. For better or worse, many Americans are brand loyal and when it comes to professional golf there is no product more intrinsically entrenched than Tiger’s. You think golf, you first think about how his day is going.
Such will be the case this weekend at the U.S. Open, golf’s national championship. Dozens of golfers teed off Thursday, each with their own aspirations and interesting backstories, but the cameras were focused largely on Woods as he made his way around majestic Pebble Beach.
This obsession was certainly understandable in April when Woods time-traveled to an age when he was younger and invincible to master The Masters. That was a fabulous weekend, nostalgic and inspiring. Woods defied logic and the physical realities of aging and we all raised a glass to his greatness and perseverance.
But the truth is, he was pedestrian missing the cut at the PGA Championship, shooting 5-over, 145 at Bethpage Black in the middle of May. That turned out to be Brooks Koepka’s tournament, but even while he was shattering the game’s 36-hole record by taking only 128 shots, we weren’t allowed to singularly focus on him until Tiger’s time was up.
That seems to be the case again this weekend. Justin Rose shot an implausible 65 to open play, but all anyone seemed to want to talk about was how Woods sprayed iron shots on the way to a 1-under 70 that left him five strokes behind the leader.
“I didn’t hit my irons as crisp as I’d like,” said Woods. “I tried to miss the ball in the correct spots, and a couple of times where I had wedges in my hand, I was just dumping, center of the green, move on, get my 30-, 40-footer and move on about my business and take my medicine when I was in a bad spot and just kind of grind it out.”
Woods hit just nine of 18 greens in regulation to make his life more difficult than it needed to be. Good thing his putter was strong, as evidenced on the par-5 14th hole when he dropped a 30-footer to save par.
Then there was this: On the par-3, 5th hole he admitted he second-guessed himself in terms of club selection and ended up launching a tee shot that bounced upon a cart path and into a tough patch of rough.
“A terrible tee shot. I was in between clubs,” Woods said. “I wasn’t committed to hit a 6-iron. I know from playing the practice rounds that I probably should hit 7 because I can hit it 15 yards short of the green, and there’s a little shelf there that will funnel the ball onto the front part of the green. … And I hit a terrible shot.”
This was not typical of Woods. He leads the PGA Tour in greens in regulation, but every day is a new day.
“It was just hanging in there, just typical of the U.S. Open,” Woods said. “But as I said, the first seven holes you can get it going. It seemed like the majority of the guys were under par through the first seven holes, and then nobody was making hay after that. And it was a little bit tricky.”
Woods’ trouble with his middle game was made especially painful by the success Rose had after hitting the same number of greens. Rose birded the last three holes and had an eagle on the par-5 6th. Rose comes into Friday’s second round one stroke ahead of four others, including Rickie Fowler.
A large portion of the field – 39 players broke par – is crunched below them as evidenced by Woods being tied for 28th place (12 players are a 1-under) after making pars on 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17,
Even though he was well ahead of Woods as he stood on the 18th green, Rose surveyed his 12-foot birdie putt knowing Tiger was standing and watching from the lip of the green. Rose was paired with Woods and Jordan Spieth.
“I was thinking, ‘This would be kind of cool doing it front of the great man himself,'” Rose said.
Rose made the putt to tie the U.S. Open record at Pebble Beach for the lowest round, ironically set by Woods in 2000. You might recall that tournament: After taking a one-shot lead with his first-round 65, he stretched the advantage from six to 10 to 15 strokes to run away with thing.
Even though that was nearly 20 years ago, Rose understands that Woods may still be capable of blazing through the course beginning Friday. So Rose is staying cool about things.
“I wouldn’t say it’s exhilarating, because I feel like my mindset is I am in a 72-hole tournament,” Rose said. “This is just a very small step toward [the] outcome. So you don’t feel that buzz that you would on a Sunday, but you can’t help but look around over your shoulder and … damn, this is Pebble Beach. Shot 65 and you’re in the U.S. Open. It’s a cool moment. Whatever transpires the rest of the week, it was a cool moment.”
Woods begins play on Friday at 11:24 EST on the 10th hole. After a short night of contemplation he said he’s intent to get off to quick start and pressure the leaders.
“Right away we’ve got a tough par 4 right from the get-go,” he said. “And we have the harder side to start off on, and hopefully I can finish up on the front side and have the full seven holes where I can get it going.
“At Pebble Beach, you have the first seven to get it going, and after that it’s a fight. I proved that today. I was trying to just hang in there today. Rosey proved the golf course could be had.”