From the moment Tiger Woods struck his first shot on Saturday, it was clear something was off. Not way off, mind you, but a slight tick the wrong way. And at The Olympic Club, being even just a little bit off can quickly cause an otherwise superb tournament to spiral downhill.
Watching Tiger on the range, there was no sign that we might be seeing him stumble on Saturday. He went through his bag like normal, striking solid shots and intently watching the ball flight, taking mental notes. There was no frustration or dissatisfaction. Just a normal warmup before the round, free of meticulous mechanical tweaks or obvious swing thoughts.
But Tiger's first shot of the day was abnormal: Over the first two rounds, he had piped his first strikes, twirling the club in satisfaction as his ball bounded down the fairway. On Saturday, his pulled out a fairway wood -- a club he's leaned on heavily and successfully at times -- and watched it fly left into the primary cut.
Every shot Tiger hit on Saturday seemed to just miss. Not by miles, but by short distances. His shots were off the mark by a matter of yards. His putts were off by inches to the left or right.
The Olympic Club is an absolutely unforgiving course. Being just a tick off can mean the difference between a round of par or better and a disastrous round. For Tiger, it was.
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It wasn't as though Tiger let the round get away from him by letting his emotions take over. Unlike The Masters, there was little in the way of club throwing and yelling. He was eerily calm throughout the day, sometimes grimacing after bad shots, or putting his head down and following his ball.
As an example, Tiger pushed his ball way right off the 16th tee -- a 670-yard par-5 that requires three excellent shots. It hit a tree and a fan before coming to rest in a trampled area of dead grass.
Standing right behind Tiger as he prepared to play his next shot, I watched him politely ask a few people to move back, thanking them for doing so. He calmly asked his caddie, Joe LaCava, for a distance, then took a huge hack at the ball with a long iron, grimacing once again and putting his head down as he walked to the next shot.
He'd come up short of where he wanted and just a bit left, forcing him to hook the ball into the green on his next shot. And though he did just that, the ball fell a few yards short of its intended target, landing in the bunker instead of softly in the green.
There were numerous putts that came up just short or burned the edge of the hole, turning birdies into pars and pars into bogeys. The few times Tiger did have a decent look at birdie were fruitless, save for a nice recovery from the rough on No. 9 that resulted in his only under-par hole of the day.
Playing alongside Tiger, Jim Furyk experienced his own shaky start. The difference between the two rounds: Furyk was able to scramble when he hit bad shots and ride out the tough times, taking advantage of pins that could be fired at and draining putts. The two were in the same grouping, but seemed to be on different planets in terms of play.
There was the unflappable veteran in Furyk: a man who finds a way to grind around the golf course. The style fit The Olympic Club well on Saturday, a day when big numbers were out there and a few red numbers could be had if patience was exercised.
And there was Tiger: Stuck fighting himself for much of the day, failing to adjust to greens that weren't exactly what he expected. Though the putting surfaces still weren't holding approach shots well, they had slowed down a bit. The result for Woods was putts that kept coming up short, looking more like lags than anything else.
The biggest mistake of the day probably came on No. 18, and may have cost him any chance at winning the U.S. Open. His second shot -- a wedge from the bottom of the hill -- was just a tick right, hanging up in the rough. He proceeded to chili-dip the chip and miss the ensuing putt, carding a bogey and heading into the clubhouse at 5-over for the day and 4-over for the tournament.
Oh, and he hit his hand on a camera during the walk to the skybridge leading to the scorer's room. It was one final moment of stinging pain for a man who had been beaten to pieces by The Olympic Club.
Instead of writing Tiger off, though, it'd be prudent to wait and see. There should be favorable scoring conditions on Sunday, somewhat of a break after three brutal days. If the course is setup how many of us expect it to be, there will be low numbers to be had -- not incredibly low, but at least below par.
Starting five back of the lead, Tiger's going to need to post a number and hope the field begins to come back to him. It's certainly possible, so long as he doesn't get mechanical again. If he's able to set aside the battle with himself, Tiger can go low enough to put a scare into the groups behind him, bringing roars from the gallery along the way.
But first, he's going to have to finally solve the riddle that is the greens at The Olympic Club while getting out of his own way. If some of those narrow misses become makes on Sunday, watch out.
If not, it's just another golden opportunity gone down the drain for Woods, a week so full of promise that ends in disappointment.
You can find a complete 2012 U.S. Open scoreboard at USOpen.com.