- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002


GULLANE, Scotland Grand Slammed.
Tiger Woods' quest for golf's Holy Grail ended in spectacular fashion yesterday as the great one carded a career-worst 81 in appalling conditions at Muirfield.
The golf world now has had nearly 24 hours to digest the unthinkable: That Woods could have entered the third round of the British Open within two shots of the lead and exited 11 adrift after an ego-mauling, invincibility-dashing performance.
Sure, the weather was straight out of King Lear, lashing our protagonist out on the Scottish heath with 35 mph winds and horizontal rain. Sure, the wind-chill factor was in the upper 30s, restricting swings and ravaging nerves. But even 49-year-old Des Smyth managed a 74 amid the tempest at Muirfield. Surely, Tiger could be expected to break 80.
"I tried all the way around, and I don't bag it," Woods said after his worst round since he shot an 81 as an amateur in the first round of the 1996 Scottish Open. "It was just a tough day. I hit poor shots on a tough day, and that added up to a pretty high number."
A pretty high number might have been the 77 Woods shot in similar conditions on Saturday of the 1998 British Open at Birkdale. After all, that was the course average that day. But 81? The course average yesterday was a shade under 75. And of the 16 players who started the day at 4-under or better with Woods, all but two clipped Tiger Stephen Ames (81) and Colin Montgomerie (84).
Quite simply, the player who has spent his entire career imitating a demigod was a mere duffer yesterday.
And frankly, golfers the world over enjoyed it.
Yesterday Woods played like one of us. He was just another hapless chop overwhelmed by the elements. Admit that you loved it when he began his round by fanning a drive dead right into the hay on No.1, hooking it dead left into the hay on No.2 and pushing it back into the right rough on No.3. We've all been there completely uncertain which shape is coming next.
Admit that you loved it when Woods yipped a 2-footer on No. 8, looking every bit as hopeless as a Muni Shmo gagging in front of his pals on any given weekend. The only difference was that the claret jug and a potential Grand Slam were riding on Tiger's day, not a $5 nassau.
Admit that you loved it when Woods chunked a chip on No.10 and then left one in the bunker on No.13 en route to a double bogey. For the first time in his career, Woods the remorseless machine played like Joe Hack, and you had to appreciate the humanity of it. Finally, Woods looked like a mere mortal.
And after he finally rolled home a 5-footer for birdie at the 17th, Woods had the good humor to laugh at himself. He raised his hands in mock triumph after the putt fell and smiled at caddie Steve Williams. It might have been the most human gesture of his career. It was certainly the most self-deprecating.
"I didn't get shut out. At least I made one birdie today," said the 26-year-old Woods, whose demise was so complete that he handled his competitive exit with exceptional post-round grace. "We all understand that this is just the way the Open Championship is. The weather is unpredictable, and anything can happen and it has happened."
But not only was his third-round debacle good for golfers in general, the complete public demise of Woods the Merciless was the best thing that could have happened to professional golf.
Every one of Tiger's would-be rivals must feel rejuvenated, reborn even, after yesterday's stunner. At the beginning of the week, Sergio Garcia predicted something eventually would happen that would make Tiger's aura of invincibility "go away and allow other players to believe."
Well, that something is called an 81. Make no mistake, Tiger will be back, possibly as soon as the PGA Championship. And yesterday's anomaly aside, nobody could be silly enough to dispute his status as the best golfer on the planet, by streaks.
But we were all waiting for a glimmer of fallibility, and yesterday we got a supernova of susceptibility. We were all waiting for Tiger to be mildly humbled, and yesterday he was virtually humiliated. In the final analysis, we are likely to look back on Muirfield as Woods' Gettysburg. His aura of invincibility clearly has been damaged. His psychological mastery is in momentary retreat.
Suspense has returned to the world of professional golf. And isn't that grand.

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