U.S. Open: Tiger Woods is running out of tomorrows

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Tiger Woods had just four-putted, a stupefying lapse that guaranteed there would be no happy ending to his first round at the U.S. Open. He followed that gaffe with a horrible tee shot, short and way right, into the hay, into jail.

While walking away from those train wrecks and toward a hopeless second shot from the side of a hill on the 14th hole, Woods had a moment.

Of humanity. Of camaraderie. Of sportsmanship.

Off to his left, a roar erupted. Dean Burmeister, a relative nobody in a sport Woods once ruled, flew in an eagle on the 18th hole from 103 yards out. Woods lifted himself outside his personal misery for a few seconds to raise a hand in salute on the shot, waving to the group below.

It was the kind of shot Tiger used to make in tournaments like this.

Woods has always respected the game. On a day when he shot a disastrous, 8-over-par 78, he respected Burmeister’s feat (on the way to a 75 of his own). Shinnecock Hills won Thursday, reducing the field to wind-worn rubble, and Tiger surely had to be impressed that any golfer could get one over on this merciless beast of a course.

Tiger Woods’ return to U.S. Open competition started with a triple bogey, the highest single-hole score of the day. (AP)

After that radar blip of good cheer, it was back to suffering for Woods. That second shot from the hillside, from a bad lie above his feet, was yanked left into more trouble. That led to a gouge-out into the fairway, a chip and two putts.

And just like that, Tiger Woods had recorded back-to-back double bogeys. Combine that with a triple bogey on the very first hole – the worst single score on that hole all day – and the 2018 comeback took a serious step backward.

Injury kept Woods out of the past two U.S. Opens, and pretty much out of all golf in 2016 and ’17. He said Tuesday he missed playing the Open, a championship he has captured three times, but what he might have meant is that he misses winning the Open. Or at least playing well.

“It was tough out there,” Woods acknowledged. “But I shouldn’t make two doubles and a triple.”

No, he shouldn’t. Two doubles and a triple, plus bogeys on two other holes – offset by just a single birdie on the easiest hole on the course, No. 5 – will earn a man a tie for 102nd after one round. It will leave a man in danger of missing the cut. It will leave a man speaking in a soft, exasperated voice afterward.

And yet, not all was lost Thursday. Because Woods did do one thing that will give him some hope – he drove it well. On a day when the wind was toying with players off the tee, Tiger put the ball where he wanted most of the time off the tee.

That allowed him to put 12 pars on the scorecard, more than a lot of players. It’s just that the bad holes were really bad. If those two doubles and a triple were single bogeys, Woods is sitting at four-over par, just five shots off the lead, and feeling much better.

They weren’t.

“I drove it good most of the day,” he said. “I just didn’t do anything from there. I’m hitting it well. The last four tournaments I’m not putting it well.”

Of course, Woods sees this putting malaise as not only fixable, but perhaps fixable immediately. He is nothing if not stubborn, and part of that obstinance is a refusal to fully acknowledge the flawed state of his game.

At least publicly, Woods insists that he’s just a tweak or two away from contending. An opening-round 78 suggests otherwise – suggests that he’s simply not capable, at age 42 and coming off such a long layoff, to conquer the massive challenges this course presents.

But good luck telling him that.

“Something in the 60s [Friday] and I’ll be just fine,” he said.

He also maintained that the conditions will be easier the rest of the week than they were Thursday – and he might be right about that. And he referenced a Lanny Wadkins’ fourth-round 65 on this course in the 1986 U.S. Open, which catapulted him back into contention after an opening 74.

So Tiger is telling himself he’s still got a chance. This week, and perhaps in the bigger picture.

A lot of fans want to believe him. They followed Woods’ pairing with Thursday co-leader Dustin Johnson (-1) and Justin Thomas (+4) in large numbers early, then dwindled as their round plodded along into the early evening hours. Perhaps traumatized by the brutal commute into Shinnecock, the course had emptied out significantly by the time the group finished.

As the 14-time major winner trudged to the scorer’s trailer to sign his scorecard, there were the usual shouts of encouragement along the way. Fans want to see the old Woods, not the one who shoots 78.

“Tomorrow, Tiger!” one yelled.

Old and mortal, beaten down by a monster of a course Thursday, Tiger Woods’ golfing tomorrows are dwindling. Nobody knows how many he has left, and whether they’ll ever be glorious again.

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