HOYLAKE, England – As his tee shot curled farther and farther away from the 17th fairway, heading toward all sorts of trouble, Tiger Woods simply stuffed his club in the bag.
He appeared to mumble something to himself, but that was about it.
No fiery outburst. No course language. No complaints about someone talking too loud, or being on the phone, or snapping a picture.
Shoulders slumping, Woods looked as though he had accepted his fate.
There won’t be a 15th major championship.
Not at this British Open.
Woods needed a birdie at the final hole – his only one of the day – just to make the cut. He walked off the 18th with a 5-over 77, his worst Open round since that stormy day at Muirfield in 2002, and headed to the weekend a staggering 14 shots behind the leader, Rory McIlroy.
“Not very good,” Woods said.
Indeed, it wasn’t.
Woods made double-bogey at the first hole, a bogey at the second. Just like that, all the good vibes from a 69 in the opening round were wiped away, his score tumbling to even par. From there, it was a grind – 14 pars in a row as McIlroy pulled away.
Then came the 17th, where Woods made such a mess of things, he nearly missed the cut at a major for only the fourth time in his professional career. That aforementioned tee shot sailed out of bounds right of the fairway, though Woods didn’t realize it until he had walked some 150 yards toward his ball.
Back to the tee box he trudged, to hit another after taking a one-stroke penalty. This time, Woods yanked it off in the tall grass to the left, between the 16th and 17th fairways. Four more shots were required to finish off a triple-bogey 7 that nearly finished off his hopes of getting in two more much-needed rounds.
Clearly, Woods is rusty after undergoing back surgery on March 31. He missed the Masters and the U.S. Open, finally returning to action at Congressional three weeks ago. He missed the cut in that event, and his opening round at Hoylake – five birdies in six holes on the back side – was merely an aberration.
There’s a lot of work to do.
“I had some opportunities to make a few birdies along the way to get back to even par for the day, and I just never did,” Woods said. “I just never made anything. I had myself in good positions to make birdies, and I just didn’t do it.”
More distressing for those in the Woods camp, his body language looked more and more defeated as McIlroy kept adding to what was a mere three-shot lead over Woods at the start of the round.
Woods sounded downright delusional when he brought up Paul Lawrie’s comeback from a 10-shot deficit on the final day at Carnoustie in 1999.
That, of course, required Jean Van de Velde to essentially give the tournament away on the 72nd hole.
Hard to see McIlroy making such a blunder – and, even if he did, Woods’ game being in any sort of shape to take advantage of it.
“I’m pretty far back,” Woods conceded. “Luckily I’ve got two rounds to go. And hopefully I can do something like Paul did in `99. He made up, I think, 10 in one day. Hopefully I can play well on the weekend and at least give myself a shot at it going to the back nine on Sunday.”
Actually, Woods’ rehabilitation would seem to be a longer-term project.
He showed flashes of his once-dominant form – that stretch of birdies on Thursday, a testy chip over a pot bunker to set up a 6-footer for birdie at the 18th on Friday – but the consistency just isn’t there. Too many errant drives. Too many iron shots that just weren’t quite close enough to the flag. Too many putts that came up short or slid by the cup.
What made it all the more striking was the performance by McIlroy, usually considered the most likely player to succeed Woods as the face of the game.
The Boy Wonder from Northern Ireland made his second straight 66 look downright easy, barely breaking a sweat on the sticky day.
“He plays pretty aggressively to begin with,” Woods said. “And when he’s going, he can get it going pretty good.”
That’s what they used to say about Woods, who was only 32 when he won his 14th major championship.
Now he’s 38, and still waiting to add another.
Hard to see that changing at Royal Liverpool.