Column: Woods still a puzzle, even to himself
The roars began for Tiger Woods the moment he got to the top of the stairway on the way to the first tee. A glimpse of him in his lime green shirt was all it took to send the fans at Olympic Club into a frenzy.
This was supposed to be the day he pulled away in the U.S. Open, the day he used his clubs to proclaim that the chase of Jack Nicklaus was officially back on. That's the way it usually worked on Saturdays in the 14 majors he won before his life and game fell apart and he was left with the daunting task of rebuilding both.
The crowd was primed, and so was Woods. Both had good reason to be, after two days of near perfection left him tied on top of the leaderboard with 36 holes to play.
''Hey, Jimbo,'' Woods said in the longest conversation he would have on the day with playing partner Jim Furyk. ''Nike One today.''
What no one - especially Woods - knew was the mess that would lie ahead.
His pulled his tee shot on the first hole into the rough and made bogey. By the time he had reached the ninth hole he had made three more.
He hit trees with a driver in his hand, missed greens with a wedge in his hand. The pristine shots of the last two days gave way to an assortment of clunkers and chunkers that seemed to leave him bewildered - if not embarrassed.
A kid who couldn't win his high school state tournament a few weeks ago beat him by five shots. An Englishman with a long record of futility in major championships bested him by eight.
And just when he thought he couldn't get any worse, Woods plowed squarely into a photographer as he walked angrily up the hill to the scoring area, shaking his right hand as though he injured it against a camera.
On this day at least, the new Tiger Woods didn't look much like the old Tiger Woods. He simply looked old.
He offered little in the way of explanation, though Woods rarely gives any insight into his game. Something about greens that didn't roll the way he thought they would, and yardages that never seemed to match the club he wanted to hit.
It was more than that, of course, though maybe Woods didn't want to admit it. Confidence can be a fragile thing for any player, much less one who has to live up to the very expectations he created during his prime.
He was shaky off the first tee, shaky on the 18th green, when he chunked a chip for one final bogey. On the day when Olympic Club played its easiest, he played his worst.
Only eight players in the field scored worse than his 5-over 75, but that wasn't the ugliest statistic. Thirteen players passed him on the leaderboard, leaving him five shots back with little hope of making some birdies Sunday on a course where birdies are rare.
About the only good thing that could be said about his round was that he threw only one club - and it didn't go far.
Making matters worse is this ominous factoid: Woods has never won a major coming from behind in the final round.
''I'm definitely still in the ball game,'' Woods insisted. ''I'm only five back and that's certainly doable on this golf course, for sure.''
If it wasn't doable for the old Tiger Woods, though, it's hard to see how the new Tiger Woods can pull this one out. Not with doubts creeping back into his game, not with players ahead of him who long ago stopped being intimidated by the sight of him wearing red on Sunday.
One of those is Furyk himself, who has a share of the lead at 1-under-par. Another is Graeme McDowell, who is tied for the lead and who, like Furyk, has a U.S. Open title on his mantle already.
Add in Lee Westwood, who is positively starved for a major, Ernie Els, and Jason Dufner, and Woods has some talent in front of him.
''I look on the leaderboard and I see Tiger's name, but I see other great names there as well,'' McDowell said.
And how about a name nobody had ever heard of outside Southern California before this week - Beau Hossler. All of 17, he shot a 70 on Saturday and was four shots back, close enough for him to proclaim that he was changing his goal of being low amateur in the Open to winning the Open.
The old Woods never worried about the competition. His only target was Jack Nicklaus, and the record of 18 majors that makes him the greatest player ever.
But he's gone 15 majors now without winning a title, his longest drought since turning pro. He insisted earlier in the week that he remained on target to break the record, but like most of his recent proclamations, his words rang hollow.
For two days he looked like the player he once was, methodically making his way around Olympic Club and hitting fairways and greens with amazing accuracy. His new swing and new life seemed to be finally coming together, and it seemed a given he would be in the hunt on Sunday.
A good final round might be enough to salvage some of his confidence. But it probably won't be enough now to win the U.S. Open.
Woods is still a baffling work in progress, his game a puzzle even to himself.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg