Don't let a bad U.S. Open fool you, Tiger isn't done winning majors

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- Last month, on the Italian island of Capri, a tour guide named Sasa approached an American visitor wearing an Augusta National cap. Sasa had never heard of the iconic site of the Masters, had never played 18 holes and had referred to a golf course as a golf "field." The guide said he knew only one thing about the world's most maddening game.

"Tiger Woods," he said. "He was such a legend. Whatever happened to him?"

It's a long story, Sasa was told. And that story only got longer over two days here at Shinnecock Hills, where Woods looked about as comfortable as a U.S. Open fan stuck in one of those only-in-Long Island traffic jams. Tiger followed up his 8-over 78 on Thursday with a 2-over 72 on Friday, finishing his 36-hole misadventure 14 shots behind one of his playing partners, Dustin Johnson, whose staggering power, precision and athleticism gave Woods an up-close reminder of the terminator he used to be.

"It was good to see," Woods said of DJ's dominance.

Yes, this one hurt. Tiger came in on a yacht and left in a rowboat. His encouraging tour results at the Valspar and at Arnie's place (Bay Hill) -- and the way he hit the ball at Jack's place (Muirfield Village) -- fueled the belief that the 42-year-old comeback kid would win a major this year, or at least could win a major this year, to resume his improbable pursuit of Nicklaus' record 18 major titles. Woods was actually among the favorites at the Masters, where he struggled and tied for 32nd. He was considered a legitimate threat here at Shinnecock, where he four-putted on his way out the door.

But this is no time for Tiger fans to panic, or to accept the notion that Woods will occasionally challenge his younger opponents in the minors without ever again conquering them in the majors. This is a time for Tiger fans to, you know, trust the process.

Before the Masters in April, Woods hadn't played in one of golf's four signature events since 2015. He hadn't placed in the top 15 in one of golf's four signature events since 2013. He hadn't won one of golf's four signature tournaments since 2008.

Woods was never going to saunter back into the Masters and/or the U.S. Open and do to the field what Johnson has done here so far. Earlier this spring, Tiger called himself "a walking miracle." Last year's spinal fusion surgery -- his fourth back surgery since 2014 -- liberated him from the kind of debilitating pain that left him bedridden and unable to enjoy the life of a father frolicking with his kids.

Tiger had to rebuild his body, and his swing, and his life -- again. He's only 13 months removed from his middle-of-the-night arrest on suspicion of DUI, and the subsequent release of a roadside video showing him in a disoriented state. Woods' habit of overmedicating for his intense physical pain forced him to seek inpatient treatment. His latest comeback as a man, and as a golfer, was always going to be a later-rather-than-sooner proposition.

A couple of encouraging showings in Florida and some sweet ballstriking at the Memorial couldn't alter the timetable in the majors.

"I think they're all hard," Woods said when asked whether the U.S. Open, at his age, would be the most difficult one to win. "They're not easy. I've won a few of them over the course of my career, and they're the hardest fields and usually the hardest setups. ...You don't win major championships by kind of slapping all around the place and missing putts. You have to be on.

"You can't fake it at a major championship."

Woods couldn't fake it this week, though you should have absorbed the scene around the first tee box Thursday after Cameron Smith, Kyle Stanley and Pat Perez (the 1:36 p.m. ET group) headed toward their first shots. Fans were packed into the tight space between the back of the tee and the clubhouse, looking like commuters stuffed inside a subway car, and waited breathlessly for the 1:47 group, Shinnecock's main event. Justin Thomas arrived first, and Dustin Johnson wasn't too far behind him; both were greeted by warm applause. Tiger Woods was going to enter the ring last because he's Tiger Woods and they're not.

JT and DJ were waiting awhile, too, before TW's march toward the tee was announced by a growing murmur in the crowd. Finally, Woods appeared with his caddie, Joe LaCava; a camera crew; and three police officers who appeared stern enough to be guarding a head of state. The crowd went wild. "Tiger Woods," one fan cried. "Aka the GOAT."

Woods responded by hitting his iron shot into the fairway on his way to a ... triple-bogey 7. Woods didn't make his first par until 2:35 p.m. -- or 48 minutes into the tournament.

"Golf is always frustrating," he'd said before play began.

Especially when your putter wages war against you. Woods missed more than half of his greens and still needed 58 putts over two rounds. He was left to admire Johnson, and the half-mile putt DJ made on their 34th hole together, before Woods finished his own Friday round with the smallest of consolation prizes: back-to-back birdies that moved him to 10 over.

"You would think the setup this week would've been right up his alley, with where he can drive it, and use that length to his advantage," said Steve Stricker, a Woods confidant, who called the U.S. Open the hardest of the four majors for any golfer to win.

"You have to battle everything. Not only the course; the setup is always borderline. And then you have to battle yourself to try to do it, because it's very difficult and the pressure is at its highest."

Of course, Woods would never admit that the pressure ever rattled him. He became a 14-time major champ by staring down people and flagsticks with equal amounts of disdain. He merely blamed his putter, and scoffed at the question of whether he still believed he'd someday win his 15th heavyweight title.

"Absolutely," Woods said.

Asked why, he responded incredulously, "Have you seen the way I've been swinging?"

Tiger hasn't been swinging it quite as beautifully as he thinks, and that's OK. Late in the second round, he sat 114th in the field in greens in regulation. Even though his parade was rained on Friday, he will indeed have his day in the sun. More than two dozen men have won majors in their 40s. With the possible exception of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods is better than all of them.

Jim Furyk predicted Friday that Tiger will nail down his first PGA Tour victory since 2013 before the end of this calendar year. That's the first step toward the kind of Sunday a 46-year-old Nicklaus delivered at Augusta in 1986. And if his back holds up, Woods will deliver that Sunday to claim major No. 15.

It's just going to take a little while. It's a process. Trust it.