Ready or not? Tiger Woods encouraging, discouraging in final U.S. Open tune-up

June 3, 2018

DUBLIN, Ohio — In the end, this week probably confirmed what you already believed about Tiger Woods.

Think he’s back? All the way, favorite-at-the-U.S. Open back? There was plenty to confirm that. Woods hit the ball better than anyone else in the field — literally — and said this is the best he’s swung the club in five or more years.

But if you think he’ll never win again, that he’s good but fatally flawed, well, there was something for you, too: An uncharacteristically balky putter, a couple of costly driver swings and a failure to finish off promising rounds.

The focus is on to the U.S. Open now. Perhaps the focus was already there. After all, Woods eschewed Memorial preparation by heading to Shinnecock Hills on Monday and Tuesday this week — plus, with Woods, it’s always been about the majors. He opened his post-round remarks accordingly.

“Overall my game is where it needs to be heading into the U.S. Open, and that’s something that’s very positive,” he said.

Whatever you believe — ready or not — it was easy to see that Woods came off Muirfield Village’s 14th green on Sunday looking tired. What wasn’t clear was whether the feeling was a cause or an effect of the underwhelming even-par 72 he was in the process of shooting, a round that saw him fade from the edge of tournament contention into a tie for 23rd.

All year, Woods’s playing partners have talked of the exhaustion that comes from playing alongside him. Large galleries trailed Woods since his Wednesday arrival; perhaps it’s exhausting for the 14-time major winner to play in those groups, too.

More tangibly, it was Woods’s style of play this week that was deflating. His ball-striking was magnificent (first in Strokes Gained: tee to green), but he grew understandably weary of the process of hitting iron shots tight and then missing putts — again, and again, and again. It became routine by Sunday morning: Woods, stiffing another iron shot, eager to jumpstart his round only to be let down as another putt slid by. (He finished 72nd in Strokes Gained: putting.)

Part of the scrutiny on Woods’s putter can feel like overreaction, a mere blip on the radar combined with the constant impossibility of comparing Woods to himself. For instance, from 2002-05, Woods was an outrageous 1,537 for 1,540 from 3 feet and in on Tour. This week? He was clearly uncomfortable from close range, struggling particularly at the tail ends of rounds, when focus can wane and the mind can clutter. His misses from three feet on 10 and four feet on 16 on Sunday echoed closing three-putts on Saturday, missed shorties on Friday and disappointing finishes to weekend rounds at the Players.

There’s another thing, too: putts are energizing. Great drives and flagged irons are best when punctuated with a weekend Woods fist pump; after the round he was reminiscing about uppercuts from days gone by.

“My son tries to do it, which is kind of funny,” Woods said of the fist pumps. “And I keep showing him how to do it and I remember: I haven’t done this for a while.

“And so it’s one of those things where I don’t ever think about doing it, it just comes out. I’ve had weird moments where it’s like the 2008 U.S. Open, I’m screaming to the sky. Or here on 14, I go running, against Vijay. I mean, I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do.”

That’s the same Vijay Singh who was, coincidentally, the only player to make the weekend who had a worse putting week than Woods, who lost nearly eight shots to the field on the greens. Not all the putter talk is overreaction.

But Woods never lost his temper Sunday, not for more than a moment. He was continually complimentary of shots hit by his playing partners J.B. Holmes and Whee Kim and continued to interact with some of the young fans clamoring for his attention from behind the ropes. It helped that there was no sudden moment where the day slipped away; Woods was far enough back early in the round that there seemed to be time to process his finish in real time. After bogeying 10 he was seven behind then-leader Patrick Cantlay. By the time he got to 18, Woods even managed a couple of wry smiles to caddie Joe LaCava.

As for the putting? To Woods, the solution is simple.

“Well, I just need to hit better putts,” he said. “This week I didn’t really feel comfortable with my lines and my feel was a little bit off.”

He’ll head back home this week, to Jupiter, Fla., to practice and spend time with his kids. Woods insisted the fix on the greens will be no more than “a minor tweak here and there.”

Time will tell if that’s enough come Shinnecock, which is demanding in all ways.

“Overall, if I hit the ball like this I’ll be pleased in two weeks,” Woods said.

He sounded convinced. Are you? One thing is for sure: The next time we see Woods, he’ll be teeing it up in a major championship. Ready or not.