Without his driver, Woods fails to find way at Congressional U.S. OPEN


BETHESDA -- It can't be found in ancient biblical scripture but a Tiger who didn't lie down played as a lamb and inadvertently became one of them, figuratively speaking.

It was a startling revelation before the eyes of the multitudes who came to revere and applaud the intriguing young golfer who has by his talent and achievements aroused the curiosity of the entire golfing world.

The course was precisely what it was expected to be, as all U.S. Open courses are -- a panorama of excruciating pain. It extracted even more from his game by the conservative way he elected to play it, disturbing the spirit and psyche of one so young and leaving him all but scrambling for mercy.

Just like any other Sunday afternoon golfer -- only this was the final round of the U.S. Open -- Tiger Woods experienced his most frustrating moments and demonstrated to all witnesses that even one so enormously endowed with ability isn't going to be God's gift to perfection.

The age-old game of golf, as contrary as it is, was invented for no other reason than to keep reminding humanity that humility is never going to become passe. Woods found that out in a most emphatic way amid the fairways and roughs of the imposing Congressional Country Club.

Quite possibly he lost his natural edge before he even arrived at this strenuous venue by insisting on giving up his strength and venturing into a play-it-safe mode that almost never works in any physically competitive contest. This is the most annoying aspect of his demise.

Woods shot 6-over par for the 72-hole confrontation, a total score of 286, which was 10 strokes and 17 golfers behind the TC victorious Ernie Els, another outstanding shot-maker with an almost effortless swing.

The most exciting new name -- Tiger Woods, a player who has the inherent skills of a master, who is truly as good as he's made out to be -- thus hit the wall in a tournament he was favored to win.

Even though he disagrees with the premise, the Woods strategy was considerably suspect. Although it sounded good, the questionable tactic robbed him of his strength and took away what was an enormous advantage -- the sheer power to stretch drives into the air for incredible distances.

The longest hitters in golf history, including Long Jim Barnes, George Bayer, Jimmy Thompson, John Daly and anyone else you want to put in the mix, aren't comparable to the length Woods is able to create.

Woods intimidates his contemporaries with the astonishing yardage he achieves. Aberdeen Proving Ground, with all its heavy ordnance, doesn't have the long-range capabilities of Woods, who booms the ball into infinity.

Yet Tiger decided to hit irons in a straining quest for accuracy on all but three holes. This quickly reduced him to the role of just another hopeful candidate in the field.

By giving up his strength, the tremendous thrust he gets off the tee, in an attempt to locate proper direction, he thereby silenced his own knockout punch.

The fairways were said to be too narrow, the roughs too high for the Tiger to risk getting into trouble by using his driver. But he found trouble anyhow. By electing to employ irons and 3-woods, he brought himself back to the pack. Instead of letting it fly, the Tiger tried to be cool, cautious and calculating.

His slugging from out of the tee box is what got him to the U.S. Open, but he neutralized his most impressive asset by playing it too coy with a to-the-vest kind of golf. Maybe there would have been a different outcome but he denied himself his best opportunity to win.

Woods has a different opinion as to his philosophy but it is easy to argue the point with him. After all, he elected to take the driver out of his hands, aiming for much shorter landing areas with the irons in his bag.

Remember, this is the longest golf course, 7,213 yards, in the history of a tournament that started as a nine-hole event in 1895. So why shouldn't the sport's longest hitter keep turning on the long-ball switch?

The feeling was apparent that Woods was genuinely relieved when the contest concluded. "The suffering is over," he said with a resigned and weary tone to his voice. "This golf course beat me up. I'm glad it's over.

"I couldn't drive here. The farther you drive, the less margin there is for error. The fat part of the fairway is around 240 yards. That's a 2-iron or 3-wood."

Yes, Woods had it all figured out, but the sacrifice he made was in surrendering the long ball and narrowing the yardage gap between himself and the other challengers.

It's somewhat ironical but when Els was informed before the Open commenced that Woods was going to play irons to get better control and direction, he was quietly surprised.

"I'm hitting my driver," he stressed, "because I can miss those other clubs, too."

That was the voice of experience figuring in the game plan.

Woods insisted he wasn't bothered with all the commotion over the possibility he could win the Grand Slam, meaning the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA Championship to go with his earlier Masters title.

When Woods came to the 16th hole, where President Clinton and daughter Chelsea were in the privacy of a special viewing stand, he was 4-over par for the day and 8-over for the tournament. Woods was up to the task at that precise point and accounted for only his second birdie of the afternoon, to be followed by another on the 17th hole.

Tiger Woods perhaps out-thought himself. Congressional, a ponderous facility, isn't Merion Golf Club, in Ardmore, Pa., where in 1981 David Graham used irons on every tee through four rounds to win by three strokes.

This was a marathon layout and Tiger didn't give himself the best chance he had to win, which meant unleashing the tiger that's in him rather than playing like a kitten.

Pub Date: 6/16/97

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