After superhuman run, golf's man of steel melts down

June 17, 2006|By RICK MAESE

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Mamaroneck, N.Y.-- --The maturation of the world's greatest golfer has hit a curious wrinkle. For the first time in his career, it sure didn't feel like we were watching Tiger, part animal, part machine, all superhero. No, that was just Eldrick out there at the U.S. Open, hacking away and looking as naked and vulnerable as Superman with no tights.

Yesterday we witnessed that scene from the comic book where the superhero's special powers wear thin, and he's forced to perform as a mere mortal. The day unfolded like a series of slowly turned pages, each frame making the reality a bit more certain: The hero wasn't going to be able to get out of this jam.

Lead headline in The Daily Planet: TIGER MISSES OPEN CUT! It marked the first cut he has missed in 39 majors as a professional.

In comic books, though, usually a normal man stumbles into superhuman capabilities. On the golf course, for Woods, it has been the exact opposite. We've only known him to have special powers. He has done things with a golf club that you'd think required an entire special-effects department, tricky camera angles and David Blaine as a swing coach.

Tiger Woods is a champion. A brand name. An iconic figure. Just this week, Forbes named him the fifth-most powerful celebrity in the world, ahead of nobodies like Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt and Madonna. But now we're seeing another side of him. Something is peeking through the lacquer of his carefully crafted image. We're seeing Eldrick.

Woods has never seemed this normal. Suddenly, he deals with death.

Just like us. His bloodline is made up of mortals. He struggles. He doesn't always save the day.

If ever a golf tournament seemed scripted for Woods, it was this year's U.S. Open. Just nine weeks after the death of Earl Woods - father, best friend and life coach - the golfer chose to make his return on one of the sport's biggest stages. The Open crowns its champion on Father's Day. In a Movie of the Week, the final scene would be Woods hoisting the trophy, a single tear running down his cheek.

"He is human," Michael Campbell reminded us yesterday. Campbell, the defending U.S. Open champion, was one of Woods' playing partners the past two days. He watched Woods post two straight scores of 76, finish 12 strokes over par and three over the cut line.

"He's actually very emotional right now," Campbell said after the round. "It's just one of those things."

And which emotion ruled all others?

"Pissed," Woods said. "That pretty much sums it up right there."

Give due credit to the difficult course at Winged Foot Golf Club. It's exposing a lot of weaknesses this week. For two rounds, it certainly made Woods look like he couldn't hit out of the tee box, couldn't swing an iron and had no feel for the greens.

Woods sprayed his shots like a busted sprinkler head. He double-bogeyed two on the front nine yesterday and sent bystanders in the gallery ducking for cover a couple of times on the back. No hole was worse than No. 16, where his second shot hit a tree, bounced off the cart path and came to rest next to a fence on an entirely different golf course. You half expected his ball to careen off an ice cream truck, play a World Cup match and tip over a cow before it finally stopped.

He was scrambling all morning. Standing on the 16th green of the day, he spied the leader board, watching as an "F" was hung next to Steve Stricker's name. Stricker had just finished at 1-under, which at the time meant Woods needed a birdie and a pair of pars over the final three holes to survive for another day.

Woods saved par on his 16th hole but blew up on the final two, finishing with a pair of bogeys. The gallery tried to encourage him throughout, but after several swings, you could hear the frustration slowly leak out of Woods' mouth. On this day, even his four-letter words seemed to come out in five.

If you ignored the backdrop and the ridiculously difficult conditions, Woods has never looked so mortal on a course. This is a player who went 142 straight tournaments before he missed his first cut last spring.

He tried yesterday but couldn't pinpoint the exact problem. He definitely wasn't rusty, he told us. And he wasn't preoccupied with the loss of his father.

His playing partners knew all day they weren't shooting alongside a normal Tiger. "His mind was somewhere else, maybe," Edoardo Molinari suggested.

Said Campbell: "Two months ago his father passed away. That's not very long, you know. Time heals, and I believe that eventually it's going to empower Tiger to be a better player."

That makes sense. We all need a moment of reckoning, a splash of cold water that helps us understand that we have vulnerabilities. It doesn't mean that we aren't still capable of greatness; rather, it reminds us that we're equally capable of failure, the half of the human drama that golf's superhero didn't seem to know until now.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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