Woods melts in Atlanta heat

TIGER Woods visited the sand a staggering 12 times here yesterday as he recorded his worst opening round in 16 years of playing in the majors. The former world No 1 has always been accused of having a bunker mentality. And he could hardly deny this charge as he signed for a seven-over 77.

His USPGA hopes have gone up in a hail of grain. That much is blatantly obvious to all but his most one-eyed admirers. Woods is in a mess; mentally, technically, probably even personally. Nobody wants to witness a 14-time major winner playing this poorly. He dropped 10 shots in a 13-hole meltdown.

>> Tiger Woods described his opening round to the 2011 U.S. PGA Championship

But then, it was all too easy to melt in “Hotlanta”. The temperatures soared towards the 100-degree mark, concession stands ran out of water and everyone suffered to some degree. Tiger was burning. But not brightly.

So much for all his optimism coming into this major; so much for all those who saw potential in his comeback last week in Akron. After a three-month lay-off his knee might be healthy but his scorecard wasn’t. When he trudged into the clubhouse he was a humiliating 14 strokes behind the leader on the course, his Ryder Cup partner Steve Stricker. The world No 5 was compiling a remarkable round, but the brunt of the focus was squarely on Tiger; inexorably heading for his third majorless season. In fact, that’s the least of his worries.

Woods said on Wednesday he expected a “W” here - “A nice ’W’.” Maybe, he meant “weekend”, not “win”. After his second-worst score in a major (after an 81 at Muirfield in 2002) and his worst opening score in any tournament since 1996 (a 79 at the Australian Open), a third missed cut in the majors looms large. And if that happened he wouldn’t even be one the 125 players who will compete in the end-of-season FedEx play-offs. How embarrassing would that be?

Such a scenario was almost inconceivable when he was three-under for his first five holes. The beginning might be the most important part of the work to some, but to Woods it was deeply misleading. He was flying until he hit the 15th tee (his sixth). And then he crash-landed. Woods couldn’t say he hadn’t been warned. Indeed, Woods had done the warning. “I can’t think of a stretch of holes coming in that is more difficult,” he had told the media on the eve of the season’s final major. His proof was soon written in pencil.

The day started so well. A 14-footer for a birdie on the 10th (his first) was followed by another on the par five 12 (his third). The latter was vintage Tiger. A wild drive right into the woods, a fairway wood somehow threaded through to locate the greenside bunker, a brilliant splash out to gimme range. When Woods stiffed his approach on the 14th, the 25-1 offered at the outset seemed on the absurd side of generous.

But then came “the ferocious four” and with one swing of an iron he was wet. His tee-shot on the 260-yard 15th (sarcastically referred to by Darren Clarke as “a driveable par three“) was a yard from making it over the water. That 12 inches cost him two shots as he doubled. He visited two bunkers on the 16th, before dropping another shot. He parred the 17th, but then his drive on the 18th plugged under the lip of a bunker. As Woods walked up and saw his “fried egg” his head dropped. “Perfect,” he said. It was this moment that his stand-in caddie, Bryon Bell, informed him he had 200-odd yards to the pin. Woods said nothing. All he knew was that he had 12 yards to the fairway. He made it - just - but knocked his third into a greenside bunker. Another double.

The shots were being dropped as quickly as the beads of sweat. Yet another bunker on the first (his 10th), then another bunker on the second, then two more trips into the sand on the fourth. He should have brought a deckchair. In eight holes he had dropped eight shots. And although he struck back on the par-five 15th, another sand-inspired disaster was awaiting on the sixth, where he went bunker, water for his third double of the day. He finished with a bogey. Guess what? Yes, he found a bunker.

There wasn’t much consolation for Woods to glean. But at least he wasn’t Ryo Ishikawa. The Japanese wonderkid shot 85 in one of golf’s more spectacular collapses. Just five days before the 19-year-old was in contention at the WGc Bridgestone Invitational and in Woods’s words was “playing awesome”. Substitute “ful” for “some” and you can approximate the startling transformation between Ohio and Georgia.

Atlanta Athletic Club can do that to a man, or, in Ishikawa’s case, a boy. It is a stunning property - as they say over here - which has the feel of Augusta with its manicured landscape and it’s breathtaking elevations. The greens are quick, the bunkers combine with the water to make it an extremely hazardous test. Yet, as with all great courses, it is possible to score. Stricker was showing that, as was Alexander Noren, the young Swede who is a member of Pete Cowen’s ever more impressive stable. The Yorkshireman has won three majors from the last six, courtesy of Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, and most recently Darren Clarke. Cowen rates Noren and standing on the 15th tee at four-under, his judgement was yet again being justified.

Few were surprised to see Stricker three ahead. The 44-year-old has won twice on Tour this season and possesses one of the great short-games. This was displayed to devastating effect when he had the cheek to go through the “fearsome four” in two-under, birdieing the monster 15th and the hideous 18th. To remain bogey free for 14 holes was an achievement in itself.

Anything under par was commendable. Luke Donald, the world No 1, won’t be too distraught with a level par 70, despite dropping two shots in the last four holes. At two-under was the 18-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero, while England’s Brian Davis shot a 69. Neither would ever have expected to beat Tiger’s score by nine. The tale becomes yet more torrid.


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