Whether you want to blame his health, his confidence, his focus or his short game, the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club was a chamber of nightmares for Tiger Woods and has only furthered the debate as to why the world’s top-ranked player can’t get it figured out in major championships.
Sunk by a third-round six-over 76, Tiger was never a real factor at Merion, finishing the event a career-worst 13 strokes over par and not even in the same zip code as the leaders come Sunday afternoon.
Tiger finished off his disappointing week at Merion with a four-over 74 in Sunday’s final round, leaving him far from contention and an even further distance away from the form he displayed while winning majors in the 2000s at an unbelievable clip.
Tiger is a long way from how he was in his last major win at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008. This weekend, his mindset seemed off, his demeanor was crusty and his killer instinct was essentially extinct.
From an execution standpoint, Woods couldn't make putts, scrambled poorly and once again struggled to hit his driver with any measure of confidence around the tight and surprisingly difficult Merion layout.
As he always does, Woods fought through the muck and competed best he could, but for yet another major, Tiger just wasn't himself.
Or, perhaps, Woods was exactly who he now is—a golfer who is simply pressing too hard and lacking the right confidence to win a major championship in his current form. Tiger would scoff at that notion, but the evidence from the 2013 U.S. Open—and many others during the past several years—points in an entirely different direction.
Early in Tiger’s delayed and truncated first round Thursday, he injured (or re-injured) his elbow while playing from the rough on at least two separate occasions. Though dismissed, the signs were visible in the first round and beyond that there were issues with Tiger’s health, and that certainly was a factor in his poor play this week.
That said, there was a lot more going on in Tiger’s white-hot mess of a U.S. Open than a tweaked elbow, and you don’t have to be Butch Harmon to have figured that out. From the outset, Woods seemed tense and unsettled.
He visibly reacted at every shot that didn't go as planned, even when those missteps were unlikely to result in a dropped shot. It was as if every opportunity he had in the first two days at Merion had to be realized, and that simply is not how Tiger typically approaches U.S. Open setups.
It’s possible he came to Merion, a course he has never played before in a competitive round, thinking one thing and getting entirely another when play began. Certainly the conventional thinking was that Merion would be dominated by the world’s best golfers, but that perception very quickly gave way to a reality of a brutally difficult course.
Yet even if that is the case and Merion emerged tougher than he expected, Woods used to be great at making adjustments to even the toughest of courses—but not this weekend.
There’s always a lot of conjecture in analyzing Woods’ mental state, because the World No. 1 rightfully doesn't let anyone inside that steel trap. There is, however, no debate that what ultimately sunk Woods and continued him on his head-scratching 16-event major drought was his short game.
One can literally count on two hands the number of big birdie putts Tiger managed to make at Merion this weekend. When it comes to big par saves, only one hand is needed.
On the greens at Merion, which next to the rough was the course’s largest defense against the world’s best players, Woods was simply average at times and below that mark more often than he would like to acknowledge.
While Tiger’s short game had been on fire while he won four times on the PGA Tour between February and early May, he had perhaps one of his worst showings of his illustrious career around the greens at the Memorial Tournament two weeks prior to this Open.
Unfortunately for Tiger, the latter performance came with him to Merion, as he again struggled with speed and reads throughout the week. When he did manage to make good efforts, the golfing gods just weren't with him, as far more edges of cups were burned than bottoms found.
Tiger’s short-game struggles weren't limited to his woeful putting. Woods was uncharacteristically off with his play around the greens, missing opportunities to cover for mistakes off the tee and on difficult approaches with his typically brilliant chips and pitches around the green.
More often than not, especially with his tournament in the balance on Saturday, Tiger simply didn't have the touch nor the decision-making needed to stay in contention at Merion. Unfortunately for Woods, it’s a tale that has been told way too many times during his major winless streak, and one that appears to have gained momentum in the past six Tiger has played.
In only one of those efforts—the 2013 Masters—has Tiger even been in contention for a victory down the stretch.
There is no doubt that in looking back at this Open experience, Woods is pressing too much, lacks enough confidence and is struggling with his short game to the point that he is only a shadow of the man who won 12 majors in the 2000s and 14 total in his first 11 years as a professional.
Yet with the Merion disaster now behind him, it’s in Woods' DNA to look immediately toward next month’s British Open at Muirfield and his next opportunity to end his growing major drought.
This time around, though, Woods shouldn't be so quick to move past his Merion misery. He could learn from the way he approached the U.S. Open and how he executed on the storied course.
If he does that, perhaps his 2013 U.S. Open experience will not have been a complete failure when he looks back at it a month or so from now.