- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — For the first time in a decade, golf’s goliath won’t be part of the weekend fray at a major championship.

World No. 1 Tiger Woods carded a second consecutive 76 yesterday at wind-swept Winged Foot Golf Club, missing his first cut in a major match as a professional by 9 strokes at the 106th U.S. Open. Steve Stricker leads the field, sitting 1-under after shooting a 69. Colin Montgomerie trails at even-par after firing a 71 yesterday.

“I’ve gone a while without missing one,” said the 30-year-old Woods, who had not missed a cut in a major since his final start as an amateur at the 1996 Masters, a streak of 39 consecutive majors. “Unfortunately, I missed this one, and hopefully I can win the British Open.”

An eventual Slam stumble from the 10-time major champion was inevitable, but the timing of Woods’ setback gives golf insiders pause, coming as it did in his first tournament since the death of his father and best friend, Earl, on May 3. Because of his father’s failing health (cancer) and passing, Woods had not played a round of competitive golf in the nine weeks since he finished tied for third in the Masters in early April.

Given the layoff, some questioned Woods’ preparedness entering what is always the most grueling major test of the season. And while Woods vehemently rejected such talk, claiming his pretournament practice sessions gave him every reason to expect success, the rusty state of his game spoke for itself this week.

In two loops around the 7,264-yard, par-70 layout, Woods hit just seven of 28 fairways, tugging drive after drive into the left rough. And continuing a disconcerting recent trend in the majors, he putted very poorly for a player who once listed clutch putting from inside of 12 feet as his most fear-inspiring skill. Woods needed a ghastly 33 putts in his opening round and improved only slightly yesterday with 30 putts in struggling mightily to master the slower-than-expected pace of Winged Foot’s severely sloped greens.

“The mind-set of a U.S. Open is really slick greens, and these aren’t,” said Woods, who maintained his composure during his post-round interview despite the extreme disappointment. “I struggled all week trying to hit putts hard enough…. I didn’t drive the ball all that great, didn’t hit my irons well and didn’t have the speed again, so not a good combo.”

But as much as his ball-striking and putting deserted him this week, his signature intensity and mental focus seemed to be lacking, as well. That was more evident in his final two holes yesterday than at any point.

At 10-over with two to play (Nos. 8 and 9), Woods was still in position to make the cut with a solid finish. In similar stressful circumstances, Woods’ ability to close is already legendary. But he fanned an approach and hit a poor chip shot en route to a bogey on his penultimate hole.

And after a booming 356-yard drive at the ninth hole, he came up short of the green with a 9-iron, raced a relatively simple pitch 20 feet past the pin in an overly aggressive bid at heroics and missed the resulting putt badly to stagger home bogey-bogey.

Woods, who will make his next start in less than three weeks at the Western Open, denied that his father’s death affected his mental focus. But playing partner and defending Open champion Michael Campbell (152) offered a more realistic take on the subject.

“He’s pretty focused, but the intensity wasn’t there as it normally is,” Campbell said. “Think about it: It’s his first time back since his father passed away. I mean, come on. He’s actually very emotional right now. It’s just one of those things that he’s human.

“These are the toughest conditions in the world at a major championship. It’s his first time back after two months off. His father just passed away. I mean, you’ve got to give him credit for actually turning up. … Time heals, and I believe that eventually it’s going to empower Tiger to be a better player.”

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