UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — On the first morning of the United States Open, Henrik Stenson and Dustin Johnson charted the course for the great unknown that was Chambers Bay with matching five-under-par 65s.
They took different routes to the top, with Johnson relying on his length off the tee and Stenson making the most of his precision with his irons and putter. The map was there for the afternoon’s marquee group of Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler and Louis Oosthuizen to follow, yet they all ended up hopelessly lost.
Woods, whose decline has become the biggest riddle in golf, carded an 80, his worst score in the United States Open and his third round over 79 in 2015. Fowler carded an 81 and Oosthuizen a 77 as the three finished a combined 28 over.
“I couldn’t grind out any harder than that,” Woods said. “So that’s just the way I played, and unfortunately it was a high number.”
He jokingly added, “But the bright side is at least I kicked Rickie’s butt today.”
Nobody in the group recorded a birdie until Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion, drained a seven-foot putt on the 10th hole. The 39-year-old Woods showed a glimpse of his old self on No. 10, where he blasted out of the sand to within tap-in distance to save par. Woods had precious little green to work with, and after he pulled off the shot, he bowed theatrically.
But he produced too many shots like his second on the eighth from the tall fescue grass. Woods chopped his ball out, and his club flew out of his hands and landed several yards behind him. On the par-5 18th, Woods topped his second shot, from the fairway, and it did not advance far, coming to rest in a fairway bunker. Woods two-putted for bogey.
Stenson, whose sense of humor is drier than Chambers Bay’s fast and firm fairways, took a gentle poke at Woods. In a group interview that took place before Woods teed off, he was asked about the physical toll the walk on the hilly terrain would exact on players as the week wore on.
“There’s a lot of steep climbing,” he said, “and I’m sure there will be some tired glutes by the end of the week.”
Woods, off to his worst start in his 18 full seasons on the tour, withdrew from a tournament in San Diego midway through his weather-delayed first round with a balky back and offered the explanation that his glutes “are shutting off, then they don’t activate.”
He will have to shoot a low number Friday to be around on the weekend. Woods is poised to miss the cut in the event for only the second time in 17 starts as a professional (the only time he did not advance to the weekend was 2006, in his first major after the death of his father).
Asked what he has to do to turn the corner, Woods said: “Keep working. Keep grinding and working.”
He ascribed his struggles to his latest swing change and said: “It’s just one of those things. I’ll come out on the other side.”
The geezer group of Colin Montgomerie and Miguel Ángel Jiménez, both 51, and Jim Furyk, 45, showed the young ’uns how it was done. Montgomerie and Jimenez posted 69s, two shots better than Furyk, the 2003 United States Open champion.
In 2007, as the architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. was applying the finishing touches to his contemporary piece of agronomic abstract art, Michael Putnam, a local resident who had turned pro two years earlier, was invited to test drive the course. Putnam carded a 70. Fast forward eight years and Putnam, afforded the honor of striking the first shot of the championship, finished with a 70.
“Today’s 70 was a lot better, considering the circumstances and how the course is playing,” Putnam said, adding, “The U.S.G.A. got tricky with the pin placements, a lot trickier than I thought they’d get.”
If Putnam is the local favorite, Phil Mickelson is this week’s sentimental pick. The 45-year-old Mickelson, who would complete a career grand slam with a United States Open title, was three under after nine but finished with a 69. He did not seem concerned that the leaders might run away with the tournament.
“Out of the 156 best players in the world, somebody is going to play their best and shoot under par,” Mickelson said. “But over four days it’s difficult to do.”
Johnson, who lost the 2010 P.G.A. Championship in a playoff on a Whistling Straits course that has been compared to Chambers Bay, is at his best, he said, when he can use his imagination in combination with his length off the tee. Asked if his round was a mental struggle, Johnson said it was not.
“You really need to pick out a spot where you’re trying to land your ball,” he said, “and I thought I did a really good job with that today.”
Johnson’s average driving distance was over 336 yards, giving him short irons into the undulating greens.
“Coming in with shorter irons helps to control your spin, control your ball,” he said, adding: “I just controlled my distances very well. I was landing the ball where I wanted to.”
Stenson closed with birdies on four of his last five holes, making putts totaling 95 feet.
“It was a good day on the greens in all, but especially the last five holes,” he said, adding, “One day out of four done, and we’re right there where we want to be.”
UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — On one hole, Tiger Woods hit three consecutive sand shots as if he were practicing on the strand of an endless beach. On another hole, he missed a 4-foot putt for double bogey because he tapped the ball so meekly it almost did not reach the cup. On yet another hole, Woods chunked a pitch in the high rough and then released the club so that it helicoptered behind him.
On his final hole, he came within a centimeter or two of missing the ball entirely.
Woods’s first-round score was a stunning 10-over-par 80. But it was the utter feebleness and fundamental inability to execute basic shots that made Woods’s performance so mind-numbing, even alarming. How could he fall to such depths so quickly?
Just two months ago, Woods tied for 17th at the Masters and had two rounds in the 60s. A little more than a year ago, he was the world’s top-ranked golfer.
In Thursday’s first round, Woods had a lower score than just two players, one of them a club pro playing in his first United States Open. Woods was tied for 152nd in the tournament.
During one stretch of his professional career, Woods played more than 1,000 rounds of competitive golf and shot in the 80s once. In his last three rounds, he has shot an 85 and an 80.
Late Thursday, Tom Weiskopf of Fox Sports said what many were thinking: “It is hard to watch.”
It was also surreal. Woods, whose on-the-course countenance had once been so determined and dour, stood behind the 17th green on Thursday laughing and smiling with his playing partner Louis Oosthuizen.
Woods put his arm around Oosthuizen and giggled, using his hat to try to hide the snickers.
Who is this guy?
Granted, each player was having a horrendous day, and granted, golf can be so humbling that most players have to laugh at themselves, but was that Woods really the same person whose steely resolve had been the indomitable force that ruled the sport?
Fifteen years ago to the day, Woods was winning the United States Open by 15 strokes. At one point Thursday, he was trailing the leaders by 15 strokes.
After his light moment at the edge of the 17th green, Woods split the fairway with his tee shot and then hit the most astonishing shot of the day. With a perfect lie, Woods topped his second shot with a 3-wood, dribbling a ground ball through a bunker. The ball then scooted into another bunker.
At that moment, the crowd at Chambers Bay Golf Course was laughing at Tiger Woods on the 18th hole of America’s national golf championship.
About 10 minutes after his round was over, Woods did not appear wounded. He even offered a joke.
“The bright side is at least I kicked Rickie’s butt today,” Woods said, referring to his playing partner Rickie Fowler, who shot a startling 81.
Otherwise, as he met with reporters, Woods was generally upbeat, as he usually is now — another juxtaposition to years of stern-faced news conference appearances.
“It was a tough day,” he said. “Got off to a bad start and just couldn’t quite get it turned around. It’s one of those things that I’ve just got to work through.
“I’m trying as hard as I can to do it, and for some reason I just can’t get the consistency that I’d like to have out there.”
He lamented the effects of his back operation last year, saying he had not been able to play often enough, or practice enough.
“I haven’t had a rhythm to play,” Woods said. “I didn’t play much last year, and I haven’t played much this year. Knee surgeries are pretty easy compared to a back surgery. For some reason, it’s just a lot harder dealing with a nerve than a joint.”
Woods, the greatest golfer of his generation and one of the most accomplished and successful athletes on the globe in the last 20 years, was sheepishly grinning because his game was a shambles. And the whole sports world saw it Thursday.
Over and over. Hole by hole. Shot by shot. Until it was mercifully over.
Getting ready to exit Chambers Bay on Thursday night, Woods, whose world ranking is 195 and sinking, was asked how he would turn his game around now.
“Keep working,” he answered. “Keep grinding and keep working.”
Source: New York Times U.S. Open 2015: Tiger Woods Watches Another One Slip Away