SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — It all looks so familiar, the cat-like stalk as he approaches the tee, the lean, sharp stare as the drive flies forward, the knowing nod when a shot goes right, the frustrated grimace when it doesn’t. Sure, the old Tiger Woods comes out occasionally, seen here across the first two days of the US Open in the form of some long, straight drives and plenty of deep, attentive crowds.
But controlling the major leaderboard the way he used to?
That Tiger isn’t around anymore.
At least not yet.
And with every tentative step in this ongoing comeback, with every three-putt green or overshot chip, we can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever get there again.
Oh, Tiger insists it will happen, the 42-year-old golfer proving himself a forever champion of selective denial, able to pinpoint only specific shortcomings as a reason he was on the wrong side of the cut line when Friday was done, a 2-over-par day and a 10-over, two-day finish sending him back to that traffic-busting yacht Privacy for a long ride home. This time it was his putting, he insisted, unlike earlier this year when it was his driving, he said. All it takes is putting them all together, he swore, and all will be right in his golf world again. He’s won these majors before, he said (as if the world might need reminding he has 14 of them already, second all time to only Jack Nicklaus) and has no doubt he can win them again.
“Absolutely,” was his one-word answer to that very question Friday. So I asked a one-word follow-up.
He smiled, baring his gleaming white teeth. “Have you seen the way I’ve been swinging?”
Yes, he hit the ball well on Friday, long, straight, and true against a Shinnecock Hills course tamed from the previous day, only soft, friendly breezes blowing where vicious gusts had once wreaked havoc. But if he was able to take small advantage of Mother Nature’s friendlier skies, he was no match for the golfer by his side, the leader of the tournament who did precisely what Woods used to do on days like this, hitting it longer, playing it smarter, and putting it better than anyone out there.
Dustin Johnson isn’t pretending he’ll ever challenge Woods’s major mark, but as he aims for a second US Open title (which also would be his second major overall), he represents so much of what Woods used to be, and reminds us so much of what Woods will have to overcome to contend once again.
“Dustin was in complete control of what he’s doing. He’s hitting the ball so flush and so solid. I know it’s windy, it’s blustery, it was raining early, but he’s hitting right through it,” Woods gushed about his fellow American’s game, perhaps revealing some of the softer side never allowed to emerge in his pre-injury, pre-personal embarrassment days, the side seen as he rummaged through fescue Thursday aiding the search for Johnson’s errant tee shot. Or perhaps just as likely, he was just speaking the truth about Johnson’s impressively complete arsenal of skills.
“Every putt looked like it was going to go in,” Woods said.
If only the same had been true for himself, this would be a completely different conversation, one just as hopeful as we were at the start of the week turned wistful by the end of two rounds.
“I’m not very happy the way I played and the way I putted. I’m 10 over par. So I don’t know that you can be too happy and too excited about 10 over par,” he said. “I wanted to shoot something around 68, 67. I thought that would have been a great score. I looked at it as kind of progressively putting myself back into position. I couldn’t chase down the leaders right away. It’s going to take me probably 2½ to 3 rounds to do it. Unfortunately, I went the other way.”
He’s been going in reverse for 10 years now, the anniversary of his last major victory coinciding with this week’s play on Long Island. That was a dramatic, courageous, one-legged, five-round, sudden-death win over Rocco Mediate, marking the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines as one of the most memorable golf tournaments of all time.
Yet here we come to every major tee, to the Masters in April where Woods was a favorite, to this tournament when Woods was labeled a bona fide contender, hoping against hope he’ll do it again. We talk of his return, his influence, his attitude, and his game, from television commentators thrilled to have him pumping ratings to fans more than ready to join his galleries, from competitors motivated to match his records to reporters engrossed in chronicling it all. From every corner there was homage and gratitude, nods to Tiger’s indisputable ability to “move the needle.”
Maybe he’ll make that major run again, maybe he’ll channel his buddy Fred Couples and ride familiarity, experience, and guile across Augusta National and all the way to another green jacket. But it won’t be easy. And he knows it.
“They’re all hard,” he said. “I mean, I’ve won a few of them over the course of my career, and they’re the hardest fields and usually the hardest setups. So they’re meant to be testers, and, you know, when — you don’t win major championships by kind of slapping all around the place and missing putts. You have to be on.”
He’s still a little off. There he was Friday, walking toward the green of the par-3 seventh hole, making his way toward a tee shot that had landed somewhere between the ones by playing partners Johnson and Justin Thomas.
“Way to mark that ball, Tiger,” a voice cried from the grandstand.
He didn’t react. Why would he? This is all they have to cheer now? On they played, Johnson making a 45-foot birdie putt from the right green, Thomas holing a 12-foot birdie from front left. Tiger? He two-putted for par.Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.