ARDMORE, Pa. -- Golf is getting its revenge on Tiger Woods, because golf gets its revenge on everyone. The game even got the last laugh on the greatest champion of all, Jack Nicklaus, who finished first in 18 majors while the gods were ensuring he finished second in 19 of them.
Golf is in Tiger's head now, and there's little doubt about that. The sport is mocking him, squirting bleach all over that red power shirt, and telling him to go ahead and win everything from the Farmers Insurance Open to Arnie's event to the Players Championship to that godforsaken Tavistock Cup.
Knock yourself out, Tiger, while blowing past that Sam Snead record of 82 PGA Tour victories, the record you didn't post on your walls as a child. That's what this good walk spoiled is telling Tiger. Golf has taken back the majors and allowed him to win the minors as a parting gift.
"It certainly is frustrating," Woods said Saturday after he matched his worst U.S. Open round as a pro with a 76 that eliminated him from a tournament now in the hands of an old bud.
At 1-under, Phil Mickelson is a stroke ahead of the field and 10 ahead of Woods, whose 219 represents his worst 54-hole score ever as a pro at the Open. Tiger birdied Merion's first hole to move within three of the lead, and everyone who thought that this course was absolutely made for him, that it would allow him to keep his weakest club (the driver) out of his hands, suspected Woods was ready to win for the fifth time this year, and to win his first Grand Slam event since 2008.
And then stuff happened. Merion happened. Golf happened. Woods couldn't get a feel for the speed of the greens, couldn't hunt down those penal pin placements, and couldn't do much of anything but make like a nervous recreational golfer invited to play at his boss' country club for the first time.
No, the bad elbow didn't help. Tiger's caddie, a really good guy named Joe LaCava, was packing up his man's bag and waiting for a shuttle back to the locker room when asked about Woods' elbow. Normally an engaging talker, LaCava politely declined comment on all things Tiger, and said he needed to "lay low" after this round from hell.
Chances are, Woods told his inner circle to zip it on the elbow, to make sure his opponents didn't take his diminished physical state as a sign of weakness. Merion didn't care. The course would've beaten him up if he had two healthy elbows, too.
"Pull it together, Eldrick," a fan shouted at him from behind the 15th green. Only there was no pulling it together for Woods, who won't be celebrating Sunday's fifth anniversary of his Open playoff victory over Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines, where Tiger prevailed despite hobbling about on a mangled left leg.
Twenty majors have been staged since that defining playoff (including this one), and Woods has played in 16 of them, missing four to injury. Over that time he endured the mother of all sex scandals, therapy, and a divorce, making the triumph at Torrey feel like it happened during the Ford Administration.
Woods has been stuck on 14 major victories as long as Nicklaus has been stuck on 18, or so it seems. "At Augusta I was pretty close," Tiger said, "and I had the lead at one point and I hit that flag and ended up in the water."
Yes he did. And that splashdown led to an illegal drop, a two-shot penalty, and calls from every corner of the globe for Woods to do the honorable thing, fall on one of his 14 swords, and remove himself from the field.
Woods didn't withdraw, and he didn't win, either. Merion was supposed to give him a mulligan. The course was supposed to let him hit his cherished stingers off the tee, and join the legendary circle of Merion winners that include Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino, who handed Nicklaus one of those 19 runner-up finishes in their 1971 playoff.
Instead Tiger turned his brutal weekend at Jack's Memorial tournament into his brutal Saturday at the Open, and finished the day five shots behind a 19-year-old college kid, Michael Kim, an amateur who grew up idolizing you know who.
"This week I was cleaning up the rounds," Woods said, "and I'm one shot off the lead starting the last day without any three-putts."
Except Tiger did have those three-putts. They count, too.
"I'm playing well enough to [contend]," Woods said, "and unfortunately just haven't gotten it done."
On the bright side, he's still two strokes ahead of Sergio Garcia (though one stroke behind Rory McIlroy). But Tiger didn't show up to settle a score with Garcia, or to remind McIlroy who holds the position of power in their relationship. He came to Merion to end a five-year drought he'll now drag across the ocean to the Open Championship in Scotland.
Even a miracle Johnny Miller round won't save Woods now, and really, what are the odds that Tiger could even approach a 63? He hasn't shot in the 60s at a major in his last 11 weekend rounds.
What a crying shame for the world No. 1. Rickie Fowler shot 67 Saturday, Jason Day shot 68, and four players shot 69. Tiger's own 68 was out there if he was up to the challenge, and he delivered seven bogeys and one lousy birdie instead.
When it was over, his agent, Mark Steinberg, gave him a hang-in-there pat on the rump. You know things are bad when your agent has to do that.
And yes, things are bad for Tiger Woods, really, really bad. If Mickelson holds on Sunday, he will have five Grand Slam victories to his name since the start of the 2004 season (or one less than Tiger), and two since Woods won at Torrey (or two more than Tiger).
So the game of golf is getting even with its immovable object and unstoppable force. The sport has Tiger by the tail, and all of a sudden it looks like it might never, ever let go.