SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – They craved one more roar. Tiger gave them two.
Before Tiger Woods weighed anchor and sailed the “Privacy” out of Sag Harbor, he birdied the last two holes of his 20th U.S. Open.
Injuries and personal turmoil rendered Woods, 42, irrelevant for 27 months. He returned from back surgery in December, and he stayed on his 155-foot yacht this week, but, outside of the maritime circles, he’s barely relevant now. But he’s still beloved.
He was 12-over for the tournament entering his 35th hole, but for a 25-minute span he the gave the people what they wanted.
He laced a perfect drive, threw a dart just outside of 10 feet, and the huge gallery of at least 8,000 held its breath as he putted.
The scene repeated on No. 9.
That was his final hole of the day, since he began on the back nine. The birdies left him at 10-over for the tournament, 14 strokes behind leader Dustin Johnson but just two shots away from making the cut. Did Tiger take solace in finishing strong? No.
“You mean, I finally made a putt or two?” replied Woods, whose putter has abandoned him lately. “I’m 10 over par. So I don’t know that you can be too happy and too excited about 10 over par.”
Tiger is never happy unless he’s in the mix, but he’s is far from type of form. Before he played in the Masters in April, he had missed eight majors in a row, including the last two U.S. Opens. He made the cut at the Masters and he finished tied for 32nd, but that field cannot compare to the competition at the U.S. Open. Besides, after winning four green jackets at Augusta National, Tiger has home-field advantage there. He has no such advantage at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, where wind on Thursday and rain on Friday complicated one of the country’s best courses and completely tamed Tiger Woods.
“It was raining, it was windy, and it was cold,” Woods said.
Frankly, Tiger’s crowds have become a lot more docile than the weather. These days, the roars have diminished to hearty cheers, and shouts of encouragement from the grandstand sound like a soccer mom whose kid is losing by four goals. Go get ’em, Tiger.
“I’m sad,” said Jim Chapman, 31, from Griswold, Conn. “It’s definitely a different feeling.”
Chapman wore a black Nike “TW” cap, and it was the only one in sight. A few years ago, Tiger’s gallery would have had more Swooshes than the merchandise shop. Sometimes fans would go farther. Braden Ankeney, 28, still does. He wore a full-body tiger costume Friday.
“Uh, yeah,” he replied to the rhetorical question. “We’re Tiger fans.”
Ankeney, who is from Las Vegas, reunites most years at the U.S. Open with golf buddies Kevin Lewis, 31, and Ken Kay, 33, both from Reno, and Carter Hausel, 32, from Los Angeles. They are children of the Tiger generation. They were in elementary school when Tiger won his first major, the 1997 Masters, and they were in college when Tiger won his last, the 2008 U.S. Open. Their foursome attended the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, where Woods shared the lead after 36 holes. Now, that was a sound to behold.
“The roars there were different than what we heard here,” said Ankeney. He can’t believe at how easy it’s become to stalk Tiger, who used to pack in galleries three people deep two holes ahead. “Today, we’d go just one hole ahead and be able to walk right up to the rope.”
Those galleries used to include a half-dozen yahoos who would holler silly phrases, and they used to have two or three fanatics like Ankeney wearing tiger costumes. But that was when Tiger had no peer. Not many people get dressed up to see the world’s 80th-ranked golfer play like the world’s 80th-ranked golfer. Tiger no longer is Da Man.
His gallery did get to see some great golf before his 17th hole, but they didn’t see it from him. They saw it from Johnson, the No. 1 golfer in the world. Johnson played in Tiger’s group and carded a 3-under 67 on Friday, which left him at 4-under for the tournament and gave him a 4-shot lead entering Saturday. DJ might not have a $20 million yacht but he left Tiger in his wake.
So did Justin Thomas, No. 2 in the world and the third member of the group, who finished at 4-over. Like Chapman, the guy with the hat, Thomas seemed saddened that Tiger isn’t Tiger any more.
“He definitely didn’t have it,” said Thomas, who is 25 and worshipped Tiger as a kid.
Will Tiger ever have “it” again? Can Tiger win a 15th major? Well, Tiger?
“Yes” Tiger replied. “Have you seen the way I’ve been swinging?”
Yes. Sometimes you’re swinging well; sometimes, not so well.
Tiger entered the tournament ranked sixth on tour in strokes gained from tee-to-green, and he hit 20 of the 28 generous fairways at Shinnecock, which is respectable. But he hit just 16 of of Shinnecock’s 36 greens, which is not.
Tiger even got a break on No. 18, when he hit a marshal standing in the short rough, which kept his ball out of the longer rough. At that point Woods was 1-under through eight holes and 7-over for the tournament. It looked like he might be moored offshore for a little while longer. Despite the good luck, Tiger still made bogey, and had to bleed in a side-door 6-footer to do it.
He then double-bogeyed No. 1, which was an improvement over the triple-bogey that began his tournament there Thursday. He followed that with a bogey at the par-3 second hole, for the second day in a row.
“I didn’t play the first and second hole very well,” he observed.
He dropped seven shots on those holes, but he really didn’t play any hole particularly well. He had only five birdies in two rounds. He only had three birdies before the last two holes.
Then he sent ’em home in style, then cruised into the sunset.