SAN FRANCISCO — He was sure Tiger Woods was going to win the U.S. Open.
All it took was one glimpse of The Olympic Club for this longtime observer of golf — especially when it comes to Woods — to reach this conclusion. The tight turns in the canted fairways, putting a premium on accuracy instead of sheer length. The thick, mangled rough around so many collars of the firm, small greens.
He figured if Woods played anywhere near the level when he won the Memorial two weeks earlier, the tournament was over.
And if Woods was anywhere near the lead after the first couple of rounds at Olympic, forget it.
This was two days before the tournament.
Considering the source and his keen insight over the years, it was enough to get one’s attention. It also raised a question. What if Woods played well and didn’t win?
This was met with a long stare, but no answer.
A week later, it remains a mystery.
Woods loves the toughest tests, and nothing stacks up to a U.S. Open unless nasty weather is involved. And yet he closed with rounds of 75-73 at Olympic, one shy of his worst weekend at a U.S. Open. Woods had a 73-76 at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, although there were some notable differences.
Only 12 of the 72 players who made the cut at Olympic had a higher score than Woods on the weekend.
Shinnecock was brutal enough to produce 31 rounds in the 80s on the weekend, including 28 on the final day. No one who made the cut at Olympic shot in the 80s, and more than one major champion suggested that Saturday was the easiest the course played all week.
And the biggest difference? Woods was not tied for the lead going into the weekend at Shinnecock.
So what happened?
How did he go from near the lead to a share of the lead to a tie for 21st?
Woods attributed his 75 in the third round to being fooled by the speed of the greens, to being “just a touch off” at a major that exaggerates mistakes and to being caught between clubs on so many of his shots into the greens.
Everyone faced the same greens. Everyone gets a yardage that makes him choose between taking something off and hitting it hard.
“I made a living hitting half clubs,” two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said while analyzing the round on ESPN.
Five shots behind going into the final round, Woods said he simply didn’t play well on the opening six holes. Hard to dispute that. He played them in 6-over par, and when he finally made his first birdie, he already was 11 shots out of the lead.
Halfway through the season, this is shaping up a lot like 2009. That was the year Woods won his tuneup event for every major — Bay Hill, Memorial, AT&T National and Bridgestone Invitational — without winning a major. Already this year, he won by five shots at Bay Hill and then was an also-ran at the Masters. He rallied from four shots behind to win the Memorial only to lay an egg on the weekend at the U.S. Open.
That’s just a coincidence. Even before the 2009 season, Woods had won 11 times in his last start before a major, and he failed seven times to win the big one. In the immortal hash tag of Bubba Watson on Twitter, golf is hard.
More relevant were the words of Webb Simpson after he won the U.S. Open for his first major. “I had a peace all day,” he said.
Woods used that word — peace — a lot when he was winning majors with regularity. He probably could use some now.
Butch Harmon, who spent a decade as Woods’ coach before getting fired in 2002, saw Woods tie for 40th at the Masters and wondered if he had lost his nerve.
Brandel Chamblee, a Golf Channel analyst known for his biting remarks about Woods, said the 14-time major champion “choked” in the third round at Olympic.
“He wants to win another major championship so bad to shut everybody up,” Chamblee said on air during the Open. “I honestly believe the pressure got to him and he choked. He was tangled up with some technical issues. I don’t think he is able to correct things like he used to be able to.”
For one thing, the trophy isn’t awarded Saturday. It’s also dubious to attribute his U.S. Open to technical issues. If anything, Woods struggled with the distance control of his short irons, which haunted him earlier in the year. And while Woods is increasingly bothered by what is written and said about him, he cares more about getting back on track toward Jack Nicklaus’ record in the ma jors than any payback against the media.
The desire to win a major — Woods has been stuck on No. 14 for four full years now — is greater than ever.
Maybe too great.
Woods was on the cusp of understanding the swing changes under Hank Haney late in 2004 when he won the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan by eight shots. In his next event, the Target World Challenge, he was two shots behind going into the third round when he bogeyed three of his opening four holes.
His caddie at the time, Steve Williams, expected a start like that. Williams said after that round Woods had felt better about his game than he had in a long time and “he can’t wait to get to the first tee.”
“He’s just got to settle down and let the round come to him,” Williams said.
The next day, Woods shot 66 and won.
Two years later at Augusta National, knowing it would be the last Masters his dying father could watch on TV, Woods tried so hard to win that he couldn’t buy a putt and finished three shots behind Phil Mickelson. He missed two eagle putts inside 15 feet on the back nine and had six three-putts for the week.
Even this year, paired with Mickelson at Pebble Beach, Woods badly missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the second hole and it looked as though he was desperate to make putts instead of letting the round unfold as he has done so many times.
The first two majors are alarming only because this sort of thing had never happened to Woods. It was his worst performance as a pro at the Masters. It was the first time he was in front at a major going into Saturday, and teed off an hour before the leaders on a Sunday.
If it’s a trend, the question is how long it will last.
Moments after the U.S. Open ended, the longtime observer sent a text message about Woods.
“Wow,” it said. “I was wrong.”