Tiger Woods living in denial following brutal U.S. Open

Tiger Woods was not on top of his game at the 2018 U.S. Open. (AP)

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Tiger Woods was a beaten man Friday. Beaten, but not defeated.

At least, not in his own mind. In that stubborn fantasy land, he’s apparently undefeated forever. It’s a remarkable place, where Woods seems to be able to erase an entire decade and convince himself that his return to major-championship prowess is imminent.

In Tiger’s head, he’s just a tweak away from being the best player in the world again. Out here in the real world, the evidence to the contrary continues to pile up.

This week’s addition to the thickening evidentiary file is his 78-72 in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, which allowed Woods and his $20 million yacht to depart the premises early. It’s now been five years since he played the weekend in the Open, eight since he had a top-10 finish and, of course, 10 since he last won this event.

That 2008 Open at Torrey Pines also is the last time he won any major. Nobody realistically expects Woods to win another, stalling out at 14 in perpetuity, an incredible career that still feels a bit wasted.

Ah, but in his own mind there is a different view. It came out Friday when he was discussing the importance of winning majors.

“Our whole careers are pretty much measured as if you can win four times a year,” Woods said.

Then he dropped this little reminder of how it used to be: “One year, I did it three times.”

A reporter asked him, whether he’s convinced he could do it again.

“Absolutely,” he replied.

Why? he was asked

“Have you seen the way I’ve been swinging?” he shot back, smiling.

That was a glimpse into that fantasy land between the ears – where denial and hope, arrogance and obstinance, feed on each other. That mindset might have helped make Woods a great champion, but now it could be a disservice.

Fact is, Tiger swung it well this week – not brilliantly, but well. He hit 71 percent of fairways in two rounds, and 44 percent of greens in regulation.

Those aren’t major-winning accuracy stats. Dustin Johnson, who is comfortably leading this tournament and played in the exact same weather conditions as a member of Woods’ threesome, hit 79 percent of fairways and 71 percent of greens.

Yet to hear Woods talk, the ball striking is there and all he needs to do is rediscover his putting stroke. Then it’s 2000 all over again.

“If I would have putted [at Shinnecock] the way I did the beginning of the year with this ball striking, that would be ideal,” he said. “Unfortunately, I just haven’t done that.”

Woods’ work with the flat stick definitely was not good here and hasn’t been good in his last several tour appearances during this 2018 comeback season. But in Woods’ World, it’s never bad enough to ditch the Scotty Cameron putter or hire a putting coach. He’s not relinquishing control or admitting that he might need to make big changes.

While the putter was bad this week, it was Woods’ failure (twice) to put an iron shot safely onto the No. 1 green that sent him home.

The first hole is no cupcake – none of them are here – but it’s hardly impregnable, either. In terms of scoring, it was the second easiest of Shinnecock’s 12 par-4 holes on Thursday.

Yet Woods carded the worst score of the entire field on No. 1 Thursday, a ghastly triple bogey that was triggered by an errant approach that rolled off the back of the green. That led to a chip that rolled back down, followed by a putt that rolled back down, followed by three more putts for a seven.

Playing in a chilly, misting rain Friday morning, Woods put his tee shot in perfect position – middle of the fairway, 157 yards out. But he fanned the approach into deep hay on the right side of the green, a nightmare destination. The ball nestled into the thick, wet grass, and Tiger chopped it out with little hope of it stopping on the green.

It rolled over the opposite side and he had to chip back up. That was followed by a two-putt that left him five-over in two days on an unremarkable hole. And just as he did Thursday, Woods followed that debacle with a bogey on the second.

Woods’ score relative to par bottomed out at 12-over. Then he played his best stretch of the tourney over his final three holes – a par at No. 7 and birdies at Nos. 8 and 9, when the putts rolled in confidently after the pressure was off. (A legendarily clutch player exhibited none of that old trait here.)

So you can pick your favorite rationalization: Tiger was fine on 16 out of 18 holes; he just needs to get the putter going; those last two birdies are a sign of what he can do; he’s farther along than anyone could have hoped in this rebound season after two years on the shelf.

The last one might even be true. But this was a setback for the comeback, and it was impossible for anyone to watch Tiger Woods play Thursday and Friday and envision him winning more majors.

Except for Tiger himself. In his mind, he’s undefeated.

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