— PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Everyone wondered whether the real Tiger Woods would show up this week at Pebble Beach. And sure enough, turns out he did.
The winner of 14 major championships shot a 5-under 66 on Saturday to put himself in contention at the U.S. Open. It was vintage Tiger, so we all thought. It was the same kind of Tiger who shot a 65 to start the Open at Pebble Beach in 2000, then went on to slam dunk it by 15 strokes, a record-setting margin.
When Bloody Sunday at Pebble Beach started, Woods was five strokes behind Dustin Johnson. When Johnson sprung a BP-size leak to begin his round and spilled six strokes in four holes, Woods was only three shots off the lead. As they say in the beer commercial, "Here we go ..."
Sure enough, Woods reverted to form. The man who has won all those majors, including three U.S. Opens, has been in the situation many times before. In fact, he has now played in 44 majors in which he did not have at least a share of the lead going into the final round, and the 110th U.S. Open makes him 44 for 44 in those circumstances. He hasn't won one yet.
Turns out Pebble Beach is not Tiger's baby, either.
With Johnson throwing the door wide open, and with no one else rushing through, Woods had his 15th major staring him in the face. But he was unable to repeat the magic he had on Saturday and unable — once more — to come from behind to win. A final-round 75 placed Woods in a tie for fourth with the guy trying to swipe his No. 1 ranking, Phil Mickelson.
In retrospect, Woods finished the week at 3-over par, which means if it was the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he would have beaten himself by 15 strokes. He knew what he had to do, and just couldn't do it.
“Our game plan was just if we shot under par for the day we would probably win,” said Woods, now 34 years old at his 15th U.S. Open. “The golf course was playing too hard, too fast, and it can get away from you pretty quickly out there.”
The golf course dominated. This was not a championship won by Graeme McDowell as much as it was a championship coaxed into giving up. McDowell shot a final-round 3-over 74. Only 12 players had cards with par or better on them, only a half-dozen were in red numbers. This was not aesthetically-pleasing, this was championship by attrition.
Woods was not especially discouraged after surrounding two birdies with five bogeys. He came into the event carrying heavy baggage. His marriage is on the ropes, his swing coach hit the bricks, his private life is a public affair. His recent play has been characterized by injuries and inconsistencies. No one knew what to expect from Woods coming into the week, and although he would never admit as much, he probably didn't know what to expect of himself.
In the end, there was a bottom line he could hold fast to. He tied for fourth at the U.S. Open. He had a chance to win on Sunday. All is not lost.
“I feel like I put some pieces together this week,” Woods said. “It's a process. It's a long process, but I've put some of it together, and I hit some shots this week that I haven't hit in a long time.”
What Woods didn't hit were greens, at least not often enough. Woods missed nine of them on Sunday, missed six fairways as well, and needed 31 putts to complete his trip. No sooner had Johnson fell on his sword than Woods began hemorrhaging, as well.
He made a bogey at No. 4, another at No. 6. He made the turn at 2-over, still viable as a contender. But he bogeyed Nos. 10 and 12 to go to 4-over. His stock of Pebble Beach pixie dust officially dried up, exhausted by 16 bogeys in four days, stymied by a befuddling history of come-from-behind cancer.
“It's disappointing because I started off so poorly again and left myself above the hole,” Woods said. “Every putt I missed was from above the hole. Yesterday I made everything because it was all below the the hole.
“These greens are bumpy enough where putts above the holes, it's just pot luck. But below the hole, it takes a lot of that break out, and the putts I had today that were below the hole I made them.”
Below the hole, above the hole ... tomato, to-mah-to ... whatever. Woods won't ever admit defeat, his glass is always half-full even when it's half-empty. His quotes were similar after his tie for 19th at the Memorial. The real Tiger Woods showed up Sunday, but we don't know if he's still missing.
Ambiguities remain — a fourth at the Masters, a missed cut, a withdrawal, a tie for 19th and a tie for fourth at a U.S. Open. That's a roller coaster Six Flags would be proud to operate.
Where the game's top-ranked player is concerned — and yes, he held serve — it's still hard to say who's on first or what's on second. After all, he played alongside someone named Gregory Havret on Sunday and lost to him by three strokes. But for Woods, there were enough positive signs to suggest happy days are around the corner.
“I feel like I can play now,” Woods said. “Yeah, I can. I got a feel for my game, the shape of my shots, what I'm working on, and the two major championships I finished I had a chance to win both of them. So it's not too bad.”
No denying history. The real Tiger Woods showed up Sunday at a major championship. Maybe the real Tiger Woods isn't far behind.