Friday 30 September 2016

Tommy Conlon: Chambers Bay heaped cruel and unusual punishment on Tiger Woods

The Couch

Tommy Conlon

Published 21/06/2015 | 17:00

Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the 12th hole in the second round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Chambers Bay
Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the 12th hole in the second round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Chambers Bay

If it were a hospital, the nurse would've drawn the curtains and ushered visitors from the room.

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But it was television and therefore the patient's agonies were laid bare for all the watching world to see. It was a summons to gawkers everywhere. They were expecting a car crash and we were invited to witness it in close-up and slow motion.

It was Thursday night, Irish time, and afternoon in the Pacific Northwest, where Tiger Woods was about to tee off at Chambers Bay in Washington State.

The course sits on what was once a massive sand and gravel quarry. Built in the early-to-mid 2000s, it looks like a post-industrial wasteland that's been reclaimed by nature after the mines were emptied.

Instead of rich green pasture, it has a palette of brown, orange and grey. It is strewn with bunkers that look like lunar craters, and drumlins that could pass for slag heaps covered over with rough vegetation. On its western shoulder is Puget Sound, an estuary that makes it look and feel like a links course.

As a venue for the US Open, it was never going to be easy. But this odd, original playground has a topography that many golfers were finding treacherous from the moment they arrived. It had a reputation for cruel and unusual punishment even before a ball was hit.

And with Woods suffering the worst form of his career in previous weeks, Chambers Bay threatened to visit fresh grief upon him.

It duly did, from virtually the first tee. After a mere four holes he was three over par. We were getting what we'd come for: the macabre drama of greatness descending into ineptitude. It was unfolding before our eyes. This god of the game wasn't just receding into mediocrity, the mundane competence of the journeyman pro. He was freefalling the whole way into amateur chaos.

All that was left of him was the aura. Dressed head-to-toe in black, he was still the man in black, with that familiar upright bearing. It never left him, that innate hauteur, even as the indignities multiplied.

His travails took him to all parts of the terrain, up hills and down hollows, knee deep in wild grass, marooned in vast bunkers. His golf swing belonged to a doppelganger, a bad comedian who'd turned this once-majestic action into a parody of technique and discipline.

His drive from the eighth tee had to find the left side of the fairway; instead it sailed away to the right. Commentating for Sky Sports, Colin Montgomerie was aghast. "I mean, that's just an absolute thrash," declared Monty. "There is nothing controlled about that swing at all." His co-commentator Robert Lee was equally mystified. "He doesn't know where it's going, basically. It's the worst place in the world to be: somewhere where the cameras are on you 24/7, and you haven't got a clue where it's going."

The greatest player arguably in the history of golf hadn't a clue where his ball was going to end up next.

"We still believe, Tiger!" hollered someone in the gallery as he arrived on one putting green. But even blind faith was surely dwindling after the 14th hole. "He's just duffed that," remarked Montgomerie as Woods tried to play out of a bunker, only to leave the ball ten yards further up the same bunker. He departed the 14th with a triple-bogey seven, ten over par.

He seemed resigned to his fate: the trademark fury and frustration were nowhere to be seen. Lee noted how Woods had kept his composure throughout the whole dismal performance. "He has," agreed Montgomerie. "His acceptance of it is remarkable."

It was troubling too, for Woods was never stoical about bad shots in the past. His implacable willpower never permitted resignation; he would rail against his mortal flaws; he would not tolerate the game's capricious moods; he would instead bend it to his will, until it had surrendered.

The last five years have seen the game launch a counter-revolution, as if it wants to wreak personal vengeance on him for all the hubris with which he previously ruled. He has fought back with every morsel of resistance he can muster. The more it has beaten him up, the more he has worked and grinded to meet the challenge. But it has been winning on points, and last Thursday it wrestled him to the floor and demanded his submission.

On the 10th, he pulled off a bunker shot that was described by various TV commentators as "amazing", "incredible" and "genius". On the 11th a feeble putt for par trickled past the hole.

On the 16th, he finally landed a birdie. On the 18th he was slapped again for his cheek. He ended up in the worst bunker of the course, an 11-foot cave that all but swallowed him up. He finished with bogey for a round of 80.

"It's hard to watch," said Sky's Ewen Murray at one stage. "He played the game like we'd never seen it played before and to see him (now), it's just tough to watch."

Rich Beem, the 2002 PGA champion, described it as "excruciating at times". Paul McGinley declared the bogey on 18 as "a sad end to a sad day for Tiger Woods."

But they needn't shed too many tears: everyone falls to earth in the end. It's just that Tiger is falling from a stratosphere that few in sport have ever known.

thecouch@independent.ie

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