After U.S. Open missed cut, Tiger Woods at a tipping point

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. -- "Gentlemen, good luck," said USGA president Thomas O'Toole Jr. to the 8:28 a.m. Friday threesome starting on the par-4 10th hole. "Play well."

Moments later, Tiger Woods stepped to the tee box. Fans were lined eight-deep alongside the ropes. Out of the quiet came, "Let's go, Tiger! C'mon, bud!"

And then the 195th-ranked player in the world, less than 13 hours removed from one of the worst rounds of his professional career, blasted a 3-wood to the fairway.

He was back!

No, he wasn't!

Woods pulled his second shot into the upper reaches of a sandy cliff overlooking the green. He carefully climbed the hill, and as he tried to find firm footing, Woods slipped and landed on his rear. It was a moment symbolic of his U.S. Open this week, which lasted an inglorious two rounds.

Woods missed the cut. That was a foregone conclusion, especially after Thursday's 10-over-par 80, followed by Friday's 6-over-par 76. It is only the fifth time he has missed a cut in a major, but his second in the past three. He finally has as many career missed cuts as major championships -- 14.

"I wanted to shoot 5 or 6 today," said Woods.

He meant 5 or 6 under par, not over it. But Woods still had fistfights with his reconfigured swing. And nothing good ever happens when you need 37 putts to get through a round.

It wasn't the gooey mess of Thursday, when Woods couldn't outscore a 15-year-old amateur at Chambers Bay. That round was grotesque -- and sad to witness. Friday's round at least had its moments when you thought there was a pinhole of light at the end of Woods' swing-change tunnel.

"On a golf course like this, you get exposed and you have to be precise and dialed in," said Woods. "And obviously I didn't have that."

The galleries did what they could. They yelled constantly and even resorted to nostalgia.

"You're still No. 1 Tiger -- always will be!"

"You're still Da Man -- stay positive!"

"You're still my favorite!"

That's nice, except Woods hasn't been ranked No. 1 since May 2014 and he'll tumble into the 200s next week. And Paulina Gretzky has been on more Golf Digest covers in the past 23 months than Woods.

So what does it all actually mean? That's the problem -- and the danger -- with trying to extrapolate Woods' performance this week. Nobody really knows.

He's washed up. No, he's in transition.

He should practice more. He should practice less.

He should play in more tournaments. He should play in fewer tournaments.

He should leave swing consultant Chris Como. He should return to former swing coach Butch Harmon. He should quit relying on swing coaches altogether.

He's mentally fragile. He's mentally tough.

So many opinions. So many voices. But the only voice that matters is Woods'. And for now, he says he's committed to uploading this new swing no matter how long it takes, no matter how many 80-76 combos he shoots and no matter how many cuts he misses.

"Just continue practicing, continue working on it," said Woods, when asked about his immediate plans. "And hopefully it will be a little bit better."

This is his fourth swing change, and in each of the previous three, Woods eventually figured it out. That's what he clings to these days, the muscle memory of past struggles followed by prolific successes.

Woods isn't going through this golf hell to make cuts, but to win championships. Otherwise, he could cobble together enough of a game to compete and avoid the public humiliation of an 85 at Memorial two weeks ago and an 80 at this U.S. Open. He could get by.

This swing change is different, though. The lows are lower. The failures are more eye-popping. In years past, things never seemed this desperate.

Woods stresses patience. He has a plan. He's sticking with the plan. He doesn't particularly care if you believe in it, or believe in him for that matter.

His peers watch and wait. They see his numbers. They see his battles.

"It's Tiger, everybody is aware," said Jordan Spieth, who played in the group ahead of Woods. "Everybody hopes that he's back and contending soon. ... It seems to be getting close, even though the scores may not show [it]."

So another major passes without Woods in contention. Just once in the past 18 majors he's played, Woods has been within 3 shots of the lead entering the final round. Those are the moments he lives for. Those are the moments he once ruled.

"Obviously, I need to get a little better for the British Open, and I'll keep working at it," he said.

He needs to get a lot better. Woods took some baby steps from Thursday to Friday, but he still finished with the worst 36-hole performance of his pro career. All the "You da mans!" doesn't change that.

Woods says his golf calendar is locked in for the summer (he's basically going to play every other week). So is his commitment to whatever he and Como are trying to do. You might think he's done, a tragic golf figure in decline. He thinks he's preparing to make one of the great comebacks.

There is no way of knowing for sure. Not here. Not now. After all, Woods is 39, not 59. The third act of his career isn't written -- yet.

Early Friday afternoon, after signing his scorecard and completing a quick media session, Woods climbed into a white Lexus courtesy car and disappeared around a curve. The next time we see him at a major will be at St. Andrews. Maybe his game will join him.