Tiger Woods still is aiming high, saying he is “absolutely” convinced he can regain his old form. We will see. What we saw over the past two days is how steep the climb will be. Getting up there with Dustin Johnson, one of his playing partners in the first two rounds of the U.S. Open, is going to seem like scaling Mount Everest. Johnson heads into the weekend with a four-stroke lead. Woods is heading home, having missed the cut. The head-to-head comparison was striking: Johnson is longer than Woods, is more accurate and has a much, much better short game.
“Dustin was in complete control of what he’s doing. He’s hitting the ball so flush and solid,” Woods said of the world’s top-ranked golfer who is coming off a victory in Memphis. “He was doing the same thing down there, but he has brought it up here and is doing it under these conditions, and he’s got beautiful speed on the greens. Every putt looked like it was going to go in.”
But before anyone gets carried away and anoints Johnson as the next Woods, let’s see if he can finish off the championship at Shinnecock Hills and then win 12 more majors.
The past two days were a big picture window into modern golf, showing that it is going to be awfully hard for Woods or anyone else to be what Woods used to be. So far this week, it is Johnson who is king of the hill. Next time, it could be Justin Thomas, the other member of the dream threesome Thursday and Friday at the Open. Thomas, ranked No. 2 in the world behind Johnson, has not played all that well but still beat Woods by six shots.
Pro golf is filled with golfers inspired by Woods. They are aiming high at the bar he set, working out like Olympic athletes and practicing like crazy.
The U.S. Golf Association had been aiming high when it placed Woods in a group with the current top two players. It was meant to be electrifying. For Woods, it was a splash of cold water in the face. It was a signal that it will take more than just a little more practice and a few more “reps” or repetitions to become king of the mountain again.
“I was consistent and I did it, for the most part, year in and year out,” Woods said after having finished at 10 over par. “I peaked at the right time and, you know, look at all those championships. I really played well at the right time. Our whole careers are pretty much measured by if you can win four times a year [in majors]. One time, I did it three times.”
Thomas often has spoken about how thrilled he was, as a seven-year-old, to attend the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville. He was transfixed, seeing Woods at his apex, beating Bob May in a playoff. It is interesting that Woods received a favorable bounce on an errant drive in that championship. This week, it was Johnson who received the luckiest break — after an errant drive Thursday, a TV reporter found his ball in deep rough and accidentally stepped on it, allowing Johnson to get a a free drop.
“It happens anytime anybody wins, to be perfectly honest,” Thomas said in Southampton Friday.
Johnson, unflappable to the max, was totally unfazed by being in the threesome with Woods, who drew the most attention. “I enjoy playing with him,” Johnson said after having reached the halfway point at 4 under, the only player in the field better than par. “It’s a lot better than playing in front of him or behind him.”
And there is the rub. Woods is more than an all-time great golfer. He is a phenomenon. People are so eager to see him that they rumble from one hole to another, disrupting the groups around him.
Nobody now is like that. No golfer is a walking event. No one, not even Johnson, is a cinch to hold onto a two-round lead the way Woods was.
It is just about impossible to imagine anyone being what Woods was, and that includes Woods himself.