KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The first sign of trouble started when the blimp high-tailed it out of town shortly after locating Rory McIlroy’s ball stuck in a tree.
Time was obviously running short with a black wall of storm clouds heading straight for the sunny South Carolina coast, and Tiger Woods was wearing a sense of urgency.
The 36-hole co-leader in a major for the second time in two months, Woods was looking for a hot start on the most scoreable stretch of the Ocean Course. By the time he started his round at 3 p.m., every player in the top 48 on the leaderboard was sporting nothing worse than par on whatever portion of the first seven holes they’d completed.
Some were making big early charges on PGA Championship moving day, stringing birdies together like pearls. Seven rounds in the 60s had already posted. After the most brutal day in PGA history, it was a welcome respite.
Woods arrived to the tee with Vijay Singh and looked ready to make his own red marks. He knocked his first approach closer than Singh’s 15-foot birdie putt but missed.
He grimaced as his 20-footer on the par-5 second hole power-lipped out.
Then he stuffed his wedge on the drivable par-4 third hole to 3 feet and was ready to get his own train moving in the red direction.
Only Woods putt never touched the hole.
“He just pulled it,” on-course announcer David Feherty whispered grimly into his microphone.
The short miss clearly shook Tiger. He bent forward in disgust, barked at himself and stared down at the ball. He took a good long time to stalk around the cup. He literally tried to shake it off with a few shoulder shimmies before finishing off his unsatisfying par.
Woods quietly spat under his breath a few choice words – repeatedly – as he strode to the next tee with the same score he started the day on while all around him challengers were pouring in birdies.
Typically, that’s the moment when you wonder how the angry Tiger will respond. Will his ire fuel him, or will it burn him out?
It didn’t take long to find out. Woods pulled his 5-wood off the fourth tee off a fan and into a thick lie in the left rough, and he just stood there and glared from the tee box as if in disbelief. For 15, 20 seconds he just stood and stared. Singh was a hundred yards up the fairway before Woods grudgingly moved.
It was getting away from Woods just like it did on the first six holes at Olympic in the U.S. Open when he went off last on Saturday. Only at Olympic, the starting stretch was prone to brutal results. At Kiawah, the first seven were a launching pad for most of the field on Saturday.
“I saw that a few guys early in the day got off to good starts and I wanted to try to do that, too,” said McIlroy, who raced to five birdies in the first eight holes before giving one back on the difficult ninth to sit tied for the lead at 6-under with Singh. “The conditions out there today were obviously a lot better than they were yesterday. Some of the pin positions were a bit easier. They moved the tees up a little bit, and the wind wasn’t as strong. So I think those three things combined is why you saw the scores being a little bit better today.”
Only Woods was backing up. He hasn’t broken par on the weekend in a major this season, and he was delivering on that trend again. A muffed chip from the short-side rough led to bogey at No. 4. A pulled tee shot led to another on the par-3 fifth. Two shots in the sand and another pulled putt brought a third bogey on the par-5 seventh.
“I got off to a rough start today and couldn’t get anything going,” Woods said, echoing his remarks at the U.S. Open.
All of the sudden Woods was tied for 11th, five behind Singh and McIlroy and facing an 8-foot par putt on No. 8 when the horn blew to mercifully cut his day short. The rest of Saturday’s third round was a Kia-washout, but nobody in the top 20 players at par or better had fallen further than Woods. In fact, only one player in the whole field (Scott Piercy) had a worse start than Woods through seven holes.
If anyone needed to call a timeout, it was Woods. The PGA’s stubbornness in starting late despite dire afternoon forecasts might have kept Woods clinging to hope when play resumes today.
“I’ll come back tomorrow morning and see what happens,” Woods said. “There are a lot of holes left to play.”
Instead of leading the pack wearing his traditional Sunday red, Woods will have to make up serious ground on the harder ones in the 28 holes he has left. He’s never rallied on Sunday to win any of his 14 major titles.
Anything can happen, of course, but Woods’ over-par weekend performances in contention at Olympic and Royal Lytham don’t inspire remotely the kind of confidence everyone once had in him when he used to get his arms around a major lead and never let go.
Seeing Woods press and fail from the front of the pack still takes getting used to more than four years removed from his last major triumph. But the impending trouble isn’t a shock anymore and it doesn’t take a blimp’s-eye view to see it coming.