For a while there it was easy to forget just how difficult golf is. Tiger Woods went to Augusta in April, played in the Masters for the first time as a professional, turned par-5s into short par-4s, never had a three-putt, seldom missed a fairway and won the tournament by 12 shots. Along the way he made many new friends and influenced countless others. Skeptics, people who somehow dismissed his first three Tour wins, in Las Vegas and Orlando and at La Costa, were now convinced. The kid was for real. Better publications everywhere, this one among them, published seductive stories about the prospect of Woods's winning the Grand Slam. He was, after all, the only golfer in a position to do it and maybe the only golfer with the skill to do it, too.
But now Woods and his fans and his chroniclers will have to wait until next year. On the Blue course at Congressional, out of its rough and on its greens to be precise, Woods performed not as a mortal man—he scored more birdies, after all, than any other contestant in the field—but as a youthful one. On occasions over the four rounds Woods eschewed the pedestrian shot and attempted the fantastical. The results were indifferent. And on Congressional's slippery greens, Woods seemingly wanted to make up two strokes with one putt, and his boldness, normally so effective, resulted in eight three-putts. The world watched as the Open title went to somebody else. Blue course indeed.
After signing his final card in Bethesda, Woods was dismissive about the lost chance for the Grand Slam. "I didn't care about the Grand Slam because I'd have to win not only this week, but two more times," he said. "You've got to take it one round at a time." True enough, but in years to come we'll get a fuller answer. Jack Nicklaus says now that when he was in his prime and he failed to win at Augusta, he felt nothing but emptiness, as if his year was over.
On Sunday, Tiger fired at flagsticks with obvious determination, in the manner of Johnny Miller at Oakmont a quarter-century ago. But there were no heroics. When he signed his final card, his tally was 286 for 72 holes, 10 strokes behind Ernie Els, good only for a share of 19th place with four others. When he made a birdie on the 16th hole, he flashed his famous grin, weary though, this time. He looked chagrined. The congregants, President Clinton and his daughter among them, hooted and hollered all the same.
The mania for Woods brings to mind John Daly, the only other player today who has the athletic ability and the personality to create hysteria. What Daly doesn't have, of course, is Tiger's mind. Daly split the scene after 27 holes at Congressional, in contention for nothing, his head spinning. Daly, basically, either wins or shoots 80. It's a tired story, but Daly, the winner of two majors, cannot be dismissed. He's good enough to make the next 10 years very interesting. Down the stretch you could see Chelsea pulling for Tiger. But the President would go for Daly, one Bubba standing up for another. The country would split about the same.
Both swing so hard. Too hard. From the tee Woods took the most aggressive swing imaginable with a two-iron, meaning only to hit the fairway but missing often. For the week he hit just 36 of 56 fairways, despite teeing off mostly with two-irons and three-woods. Couldn't he find more fairways with just a little less club head speed? At Augusta, sure, let it rip. But at an Open? "I made some mental mistakes out there," Woods said. "And I will rectify them."
Tiger's fans did not abandon him when it became clear he would not win the championship. They were there to see him, and they stayed with him. Some of those traipsing after Woods are no doubt new to golf, and they may not as yet fully appreciate the inherent difficulties of the old Scottish game. As for Tiger, if he did not before, he does now. "The suffering is over," he said on Sunday night. "This golf course beat me up. It humbled me. Humbled me big-time." A perfect choice of words. He may have dropped out of Stanford, but on the golf course he's learning all the time.