PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Tiger Woods knows this as well as anyone: To get anywhere near the leaderboard at Pebble Beach, early birdies are essential.
Woods made more bogeys (3) than birdies (2) over the critical opening seven holes Saturday, and instead of revving up for another magical run at the majors, he was talking about missed opportunities and the now-fantastical hope of winning his fourth U.S. Open title.
“I got off to an awful start, and clawed it around, but still gave myself a chance for tomorrow,” he said after a round of even-par 71 left him even for the tournament and 11 shots off the lead as he headed off the course.
But even for Woods – who annihilated Pebble Beach 19 years ago in a record-setting U.S. Open victory and fashioned one of the most scintillating comebacks in sports when he won major No. 15 at the Masters this year – the thought of winning this weekend has been relegated strictly to the miracle category.
It was a long shot, but still thinkable, when he took the course just before noon on yet another cloudy, calm day on the Monterey Peninsula. But it started coming unraveled on the very first shot. Woods took an iron and drew it into the left rough to set up bogey on a hole that plays sixth easiest on the course.
He made another bogey on No. 3 when he had to pitch out sideways from a greenside bunker after short-siding himself from a lie above his feet in the fairway.
His chance at building momentum after a 24-foot birdie putt on No. 5 came to a halt when he needed three to get down from 60 feet on the par-5 sixth, settling for par. Moments later, he had a 3-footer lip out on the 98-yard seventh and made bogey. It was one of only seven scores worse than par carded there all day.
Five of the eight easiest holes come from Nos. 1-7. Leader Gary Woodland and the next nine players on the leaderboard – the players Woods was trying to catch – combined for 19 birdies and five bogeys over those first seven.
“Seems like everyone is doing what I was supposed to do earlier, which is play 2- to 4-under par through the first seven,” Woods said, a few minutes after looking at the huge scoreboard to the side of the 18th green.
Another player who did was Byeong Hun An, the 27-year-old South Korean who was playing with Woods for the first time. An made two birdies early and shot 3-under 68, including a chip-in for birdie from the bunker in front of the 17th green.
“He didn’t have the best day today, but he’s still Tiger,” An said. “Doesn’t matter how he plays, just playing with him, that means a lot to me.”
On Sunday, some other lucky player will get the Tiger treatment, though anyone who wants to see him – a la the guy decked out in a tiger suit on the 14th tee box – will have to get here early.
Woods made birdie on 14 and played the last five holes at 2 under to get back to par. On No. 16, he made a downhill 28-foot screamer that stopped only because it dropped into the hole.
But even that success was followed by a quick disappointment. Woods hit one of his best iron shots of the day on the par-3 17th and had an uphill 10 footer for back-to-back birdies.
That putt slid past the hole.
“Just took too long for it to break,” Woods said.
And Woods took too long to get going Saturday.
So, instead of playing for another major, he’ll be playing out the string in the final round.
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