This was the worst idea ever. About halfway through the third round of the U.S. Open, I began to have doubts. The plan was to follow Tiger Woods around at The Olympic Club, from practice rounds with Casey Martin to the final round of the tournament. Through two days, the plan was working out quite nicely: Tiger had a share of the lead and was generally playing well.
It was amazing how quickly everything fell apart. As soon as he struck his first shot on Saturday, it was clear trouble was ahead. He'd been perfect off the tee the two days prior, turning in solid rounds to go along with them. This time, there was immediate frustration and disdain for the shot he hit to open his round.
Following Tiger Woods is a grind. Fans have to navigate a maze of ropes to position themselves among the herd, hoping to get a glimpse of their hero. Media members have to pick spots: Is it better to stand near the player as they take the shot or get ahead like a forecaddie? Photographers and cameramen beaming live shots are also jockeying for position in the midst of a sea of people inside the ropes.
Add in security -- and, boy, was there security -- as well as rules officials, USGA staff and marshals, and the entourage that follows Tiger can number in the hundreds. If he's playing well it swells. If he's not, it dissipates quickly. One minute he's loved, the next he's forgotten.
By Sunday afternoon, I was one of the few left standing. By then, he'd played his way completely out of contention, stumbling and bumbling through the first six holes at 6-over. The crowds got lighter, though many still showed up just to catch a glimpse of Tiger, or perhaps see him hit a shot. It didn't matter to kids asking, anxiously "Is Tiger coming?" or the guy in the Tiger suit that kept begging for a high-five.*
*This will never happen. A nod or a tip of the cap was all I saw from him over four days. Once he's in tournament mode, there are no fans ... unless he hits one with a tee shot.
By the time he reached six, the media was mostly gone, having thinned out. Tiger pulled out a driver on six, the first time he plucked anything but a 2-iron from his bag all week, and went into full-on "screw it" mode. Of course the driver went way left and ended up on the wrong hole, because that's just how the day was.
Sticking around afforded me the opportunity to actually see some good golf from Tiger, however. After his disastrous first six holes, he went 3-under during his final 12 holes. Watching him shake his head as if to say, "Where's that been all day?" on No. 8 was the lasting image of the day, contrasted by a roaring crowd on its feet behind him.
There's plenty of good golf in Tiger, but the consistency is still missing. When he was once unflappable, a few bad shots seem to enter into his head. During Friday's round, he hit a beautiful high-fade into 17, only to watch it take a big hop and collect down in the chipping area. The next day, he picked a club, addressed the ball and went through his pre-shot routine before backing up and switching to a shorter club. He was gun shy and missed the green short by a significant margin.
Similar scenarios happened over and over throughout the weekend. Faced with a shot that required him to throttle down or step on it -- a half-club, as he called it -- Tiger was just plain off-the-mark. His distances were off by a few yards on Saturday, and by miles during the first six holes on Sunday. It's almost impossible to win a U.S. Open without distance control and the ability to pick a line and stick with it.
But this was a different Tiger than the one we saw at The Masters. There was no real club throwing and audible cursing. Sure, he would mutter a few four-letters under his breath, but he was relatively calm throughout the week. Even after hitting poor shots into the gallery, he put on the polite facade, asking fans nicely to move back a little bit and thanking them for doing so.
When he fell out of contention, though, that intensity just seemed to disappear. On the seventh hole, he drove the green but found himself on the wrong tier, resulting in a three-putt. He tapped a putt way off the mark, then hurried up and missed the comebacker. It was interesting to watch him switch from completely on and focused to what felt like "Let's just get out of here."
Even when he was off his game, Tiger's presence was enormous. He carries himself in a confident, perhaps cocky, way, wandering around the course like he owns it. He commands attention and demands respect, even when not at his best.
He's beatable, though -- more beatable than ever. He can't just intimidate players into wilting: Jim Furyk and Casey Wittenberg not only stood up to him at the U.S. Open, but also whipped him around the course. He is, however, making progress.
The question of whether Tiger is back has run its course and become one of those fun narratives that always pop up. Tiger is still among the best players in the world when he's on, and can still bring fans to their feet with incredible shots and putts.
When he's off, like he was over the final two days at The Olympic Club, he's just a footnote: A face in the crowd overshadowed by a field that left him in the dust.