After Tiger Woods shot a three-under on Day 1 of the British Open, it looked like the stars might be aligning for him to recapture his major glory at Royal Liverpool, the site of his 2006 triumph.
On Friday, Woods crashed back to earth, shooting a five-over that put him 14 strokes behind leader Rory McIlroy.
It was a stark reminder that right now, Woods is a veteran golfer playing in his second tournament after back surgery and a long six years removed from his last major title. He's still the same guy who won 14 majors, but he's not necessarily the same golfer week in and week out.
The 38-year-old will be playing this weekend, but just barely. He was one shot away from missing his second cut in a row.
For 14 straight holes on Friday, Woods was as steady as can be. It was the first two and last two holes that provided all of the drama.
He started his day off with a disastrous double bogey, shooting his tee shot into the deep rough and then hitting his second shot into the deep rough on the other side of the fairway. He followed that up with a bogey on No. 2, quickly moving him back to even par. Woods then hit 14 straight pars.
However, as McIlroy surged up the leaderboard, shooting his second straight 66 to extend his score to 12 under, Woods knew that pars wouldn't be enough to keep him in contention.
Unfortunately, neither would a triple bogey. On No. 17, Woods completely fell apart, hitting his tee shot out of bounds and his second shot into the rough. He ended the hole three over and one shot above the projected cut line.
Only a birdie on No. 18—his first of the day—saved him from an early flight back across the pond.
It was easy to get carried away after Woods' first-round performance. Most of us did. Among other proclamations, a headline on ESPN.com read, "Tiger Woods can win this Open."
No matter how many years it has been since his last major victory, it's just hard to count Woods out. It doesn't feel natural.
But even after his three-under round on Thursday, John Huggan of Golf Digest pointed out that Woods still isn't the golfer that he used to be:
Employing an unnatural action that appears over-coached and far from instinctive, the sound Woods' shots produced were "clunks" compared with the "whooshes" created by both [Henrik] Stenson and [Angel] Cabrera (admittedly two of the best ball-strikers in the game). Through impact, Woods' right shoulder was high—even on the good shots—a product of over-tilting on the way back. All in all, it didn't look like an action able to produce the type of penetrating flight that could combat anything more than a Hoylake breeze.
It's going to take Woods much more than a handful of months and two tournaments to find his game again. He might be one of the best golfers ever, but he's still painstakingly human.
Still, even with the choppy swing and lack of recent results, there were flashes of vintage Tiger on Thursday. He celebrated confident putts with a fist pump and coolly and quickly recovered from any errant shots he made. Most importantly, he looked unencumbered by his back.
Since he first returned to tour from back surgery at the Quicken Loans National three weeks ago, Woods has looked healthy and fit. After his first round on Thursday, Woods talked to reporters about how much better he was feeling:
I'm telling you guys it was so important for me to play at Congressional. The fact that I was able to recover every day, and the fact that I was stronger, more explosive the more days I played. I'm only going to get better from that point. And I'm getting stronger, I'm getting faster, I'm getting more explosive. The ball is starting to travel again. And those are all positive things.
Alas, positive signs for Woods don't mean what they used to.
While Woods started off with back-to-back bogeys and recovered with six birdies on the remaining 16 holes on Thursday, he was unable to turn things around in similar fashion in Round 2.
Instead of getting down about how much ground he lost, the focus should be on the fact that he managed to make the cut.
Truthfully, it's simply a good sign that Woods is playing, pain-free, and hanging around this weekend. It's not a headline-grabbing fairy tale of a story, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.
While his major drought might end eventually—and a late-career push for the record 18 majors isn't out of the question—the odds of Woods' career getting back on track in spectacular fashion this week at Royal Liverpool were always slim to none.
Nobody knows what the future holds for the legend. In all likelihood, it holds many more rounds like the one on Friday. That's just the way this sport goes.
With Woods, we've become accustomed to the magical throughout the years. Friday was just another reminder that it's far from a given at this stage in his career.
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