- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Only one member of golf’s dynamic duo showed up for the showdown.

With World No. 2 Phil Mickelson already in the clubhouse with a solid, early morning 70, Tiger Woods stumbled out of the gates in yesterday’s opener at the 106th U.S. Open, missing point-blank par putts on each of Winged Foot’s first three holes en route to a 76 on the daunting wind-swept layout.

Not only does Woods’ ugly start almost certainly short-circuit the potential of a weekend battle atop the board between he and Mickelson, who trails first-round leader Colin Montgomerie by just one stroke, it puts Woods in jeopardy of missing his first cut in a major as a professional.

“I started off swinging well. The only thing that got my round off to a bad start was not adjusting to the greens,” said Woods, who hit just one fairway and needed 23 putts over an opening 12-hole stretch that left him 7-over on the 7,264-yard, par-70 layout. “You’re used to playing U.S. Opens with fast greens; these aren’t. … I finally decided to make a shoulder turn on the greens. And once I did that, I was all right. If I had made the adjustment earlier, I wouldn’t have put myself so far behind the eight ball.”

Flirting with the weekend axe at only the 2003 Masters (76-73) and then last year at the PGA Championship (75-69), the 30-year-old Woods has made a record 39 consecutive major cuts dating to the 1996 Masters (75-75), when he fell four strokes short in his last trip to Augusta National as an amateur. In yet another eerie parallel between the two greatest players in the game’s history, Woods shares that Slam streak with Jack Nicklaus, who also made 39 straight between the 1969 Masters and 1978 British Open.

Woods stands in the midst of a mob tied for 68th and likely will need a 73 or better today to survive the cut to the low 60 players and ties and extend his streak of made major cuts to 40. Success on that front demands significant improvement in both his driving and putting. Though he claimed to feel no rust after the nine-week layoff surrounding his father’s death (May 3), his poor work with those two clubs indicated otherwise.

The 10-time major champion fought a pull off the tee all day, finding just three of 14 fairways. Among the 156-player field, only journeyman Phil Tataurangi hit fewer fairways (two), and he shot 86. And Woods needed a ghastly 33 whacks with the short stick thanks to his pace problems on the greens.

Though Woods’ ultimate asset always has been his unmatched mental toughness, clutch putting from inside 10 feet used to be his most daunting skill. But his consistency in that regard has slipped considerably in majors over the last year. He finished last season’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst ranked dead last in putting despite leading the field in greens in regulation. He followed that rankling trip to North Carolina with pedestrian efforts with the blade by his standards in the British Open (which he won anyway) and the PGA Championship. And his final-round putting performance at Augusta National two months ago might have been the worst of his career, 33 putts on greens he usually owns sabotaging a brilliant ball-striking round.

But history says he has virtually no chance to win the championship. Only two eventual champions have ever started an Open with such a score, both Ben Hogan (1951) and Jack Fleck (1955) rallying after starting 76s.

“It’s been done before, hasn’t it?” Woods asked rhetorically as he walked away from the interview podium and headed for the putting green. “I’ve just got to plod along. If I shoot a couple of rounds under par, I’ll be right there.”

Two of the men already “right there” — Mickelson and Montgomerie — are likely to command much of today’s second-round spotlight.

In his bid to join Hogan (1953) and Woods (2000-01) as the only players ever to win three or more straight majors, Mickelson put his extensive course knowledge to good use yesterday. Despite hitting only eight greens, Mickelson missed in the right spots time and again and dazzled with his short game, recording eight up-and-down par saves.

“I didn’t have to make too many long putts; they were pretty easy chips,” Mickelson said of his bevy of saves. “It looks like on paper it was a lot harder round than I think it felt, but the golf course is still very challenging. … With the dry conditions coming the next three days, I think even par, or 1-under, which is leading right now, could very well be the lowest score that we see this week.”

That sub-par salvo, the lone red number on the board, belongs to Montgomerie. Even at 42 and past his prime, the Scot is still an Open terror with his incredibly accurate game off the tee and his uncanny distance control with his irons.

With two silvers (1994 and 1997) and bronze (1992) on his Open resume, Montgomerie always has felt this tournament provided the best chance for his long-awaited major breakthrough. But unlike the tense, rabbit-eared Montgomerie of old, the more relaxed current version of the European Tour’s one-time king might finally be emotionally ready to win one. Even American galleries, which used to heckle Monty mercilessly, seem to have embraced the new Montgomerie as a long-suffering underdog.

“I had a lot of support,” said Montgomerie, who played the back nine in 33 strokes to cement the day’s best score. “I think the expectation was lower this particular year or the last few years that I haven’t contended, and it does make a difference when you are more relaxed. … It’s nice. I can go out and sort of freewheel it if you like and not worry about things the way I used to do in the ‘90s.”

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