Tiger Met His Match at the U.S. Open — and It Wasn't the Devilish Course

Tiger Met His Match at the U.S. Open — and It Wasn't the Devilish Course

Why you should care

Because Tiger Woods’ comeback journey is hitting a roadblock.

At his swaggering, virtuoso apex, Tiger Woods personified controlled fury. At Shinnecock Hills for his first U.S. Open since 2015, he was just plain furious. A triple-bogey 7 opened his tournament, a harbinger of struggles to come.

But playing with Tiger, with the same type of awe-inspiring power Woods sported in his prime, Dustin Johnson stared down a course that brought even the most accomplished players in the field to their knees, with incredible power off the tee and stoic consistency around the greens. Then over the weekend, Brooks Koepka picked up the baton to polish off back-to-back U.S. Open titles — a feat that Woods never accomplished in his storied career.

Forget time, age or health. The biggest challenge Woods faces to winning another major is the incredible field of young talent we saw on display this week at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

Woods may still be able to compete for major titles. When asked Friday if he believed he could, he snapped back, “Absolutely,” then asked rhetorically, “Have you seen how I’ve been swinging?”

Koepka, 28, came into the week as an afterthought when compared to the superstars we know simply by their first names. Yet he conquered a brutal course to become the first player to win the Open in consecutive years since Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989. “I always feel like I’m overlooked,” Koepka said after securing the trophy. “I couldn’t care less.” When many of the top players in the world buckled under golf’s toughest test, Koepka strolled around the iconic rolling fairways of Shinnecock like he was headed to the nearby beaches of Southampton. He made a handful of blood-and-guts par saves, but the pivotal save of the tournament came on the par-3 11th when Koepka flew the green and came back to sink a long putt for bogey. After an impressive come-from-behind major win, Brooks has to be mentioned in the same breath with Rory, Jordan, Rickie and DJ.

And Tiger? This brand of major championship golf is foreign to him. He’s not used to fields full of guys who can hit it by him off the tee, players accustomed to Sunday pressure without Woods sucking the air out of every tournament. Woods ham-and-egged his way to more than one major title, fighting off vicious golf courses and charging fields. He didn’t always do it with miraculous saves, snaking birdie putts or stuffed approaches. Often, he simply made fewer mistakes than the field as the best scrambler and putter to ever live.

This year, 10 years removed from his last major title, Woods, 42, was reduced to fawning over his playing partner Johnson as he limped to a missed cut. “He’s hitting the ball so flush and so solid,” Woods said of Johnson. “It’s windy and blustery. It was rainy early and he’s hitting right through it. It was good to see.”

Woods famously loved tough conditions, thriving when players were more worried about setup and hole locations on a brutally difficult course. Jason Day joked after his Thursday round that his trouble started when the USGA simply put the flags on these diabolical Shinnecock Hills greens. Just standing on the tee boxes at Shinnecock — with sloping fairways, brutal rough and downright evil greens — can knock the best players in the world off their game. Day missed the cut, as did Rory McIlroy. Jordan Spieth complained about pin placements as he was walking to hit putts, and Bryson DeChambeau called it “clown golf.”

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American Brooks Koepka celebrates with the U.S. Open Championship trophy at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on June 17, 2018, in Southampton, New York.

Source Ross Kinnaird/Getty

In person, some of the hole locations pushed the boundaries of fairness, off slopes and sidehill lies. But there are some greens where it would be hard for the USGA to find a hole location for the players to get after. That’s the beauty of arguably the greatest course in championship golf.

Someone forgot to tell Johnson, 33, to be intimidated or bothered. Driver, wedge, putter, putter, walk to the next tee. On the Fox telecast, golf course architect Gil Hanse said Johnson is a nightmare to design for, the kind of praise famously heaped on Tiger early in his career when golf courses had to be “Tiger-proofed.”

“I like where par is a good score on every hole no matter what club you got in your hand, what hole it is,” Johnson said after firing a three-under 67 on Friday in front of Woods. After 65 weeks at World No. 1, Johnson lost the top spot to Justin Thomas before reclaiming it with a win in Memphis the week before the Open. Woods owns the record with 683 weeks in that perch. Back on top, Johnson would have to remain there until 2030 to snag that record. There’s no heir apparent to Tiger Woods. He’s sui generis.

But the most dominant player to ever put on golf spikes saw his future at Shinnecock Hills. If he wants to get back to winning again, competing at major championships and taking home trophies, it’s players like Johnson whom he’ll have to best. Even 25-year-old Justin Thomas, also in their playing group, already has a major championship to his name.

Woods may still be able to compete for major titles. When asked Friday if he believed he could, he snapped back, “Absolutely,” then asked rhetorically, “Have you seen how I’ve been swinging?”

Yes, Tiger, but you also saw how Johnson was swinging. You even marveled at it. Can you get to that level with the putting to match?

His first chance to answer comes in less than five weeks at Carnoustie.

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