U.S. Open: Tiger Woods, Ever the Grinder, Hangs In at Pebble

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — When people speak of Tiger Woods’s greatness, they typically talk about tournaments like the 2000 United States Open at Pebble Beach, where he pieced together a victory as iconic as the cypress tree in the landing area of the 18th hole. His performance that week has become one of the indelible moments of his remarkable career.

Recalling that performance on Tuesday, Woods said that he had not missed a putt inside 10 feet and that he was hitting everything beautifully.

“I don’t know how I pulled it off,” Woods added.

His 15-stroke margin of victory in 2000, the largest in majors history, is in the pantheon of virtuoso sports performances, as sublime as Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series or Elgin Baylor’s 61 points in Game 5 of the 1962 N.B.A. finals.

But Woods’s greatness can also be measured by how he performs when his irons feel like dull knives in his hands, as they did Thursday when he hit zigzag shots, found just half the greens in regulation and somehow managed to post one of the 39 below-par opening rounds.

Woods’s one-under-par 70 in the first round was golf as pure grit. He one-putted 11 holes, including the par-5 14th, where he coaxed in a 31-foot par attempt. His wizardry at turning potential bogeys (or worse) into pars with his short game is central to his success.

In a U.S. Open, where pars are especially precious, avoiding the big numbers tends to be a sounder strategy than aiming to go low. In the second round on Friday, Woods started on the back nine — the more difficult side of the course — and played it in a bogey-free one under. He plodded along, sidestepping trouble but swinging little momentum his way.

But he faltered at the end on Friday, finishing bogey-bogey for a one-over 72 that sent him into the weekend at par for the tournament. Woods’s play on his final hole Friday, No. 9, epitomized the kind of trouble he kept finding, though this time, he could not save par.

His drive landed in a fairway bunker and, after consulting with his caddie, Joe LaCava, Woods opted to lay up. His second shot found the left rough, and from there he lifted a soft shot onto the green. It rolled 6 feet past the hole, leaving him with a bedeviling 6-foot downhill par putt, which he missed.

Woods certainly did not play his way out of the tournament, but he will need to summon considerable magic over the weekend if he is to contend for his 16th major title. It could still end up like 2000 once more — that is, the 2000 P.G.A. Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky.

That major is remembered for a 6-foot downhill putt that Woods drained to force extra holes with Bob May, and for the 25-foot birdie putt he walked into the hole while pointing at the cup. That birdie began the three-hole playoff that gave Woods the title.

Buried in the slew of superlatives that his victory engendered was the fact that he trailed by two strokes early in the final round but dug deep and played the final 12 regulation holes in seven under to tie May.

Over his first 36 holes at Pebble this week, Woods showed that he has the pieces to complete another title, if not a masterpiece.

He did not putt as well on Friday as in the first round, mostly because his approaches kept landing above the hole, making for trickier attempts. But his drives were so stout he would bend down to pick up his tee without bothering to track the ball’s flight.

In his prime, Woods was not just the best overall player, he was the most mentally tough. In his youth, when his game was sharp, that combination enabled him to crush some of the best players in the world. Now, the mental toughness has allowed him to win the Masters at 43 and to cope with, if not subdue, another Open at Pebble Beach.

After signing his scorecard on Thursday, Woods answered nine questions and referred six times to “hanging on,” “hanging in there” or “hanging around.” His responses underscored his pride in being the greatest of plodders.

In 2000, the Danish star Thomas Bjorn said of Woods, “He hits every shot as if his life depends on it.”

Woods’s embrace of the struggle illuminates why he fought back from four spine operations to compete again. His appetite for competition explains how he was still hungry enough after 79 tour victories, including 14 majors, to forge a comeback that culminated with the Tour Championship title in September and a fifth Masters title in April.

His mental strength is manifest in his results. But exactly how Woods’s mind works is a mystery. Grinding comes so second nature to Woods, he is at a loss to explain it.

“It’s just fighting it out and grinding it out,” he said.

The stages of grit, according to Woods, are bargaining and acceptance. Woods said he tried to hit the correct spots and when he didn’t, “I took my medicine and moved on and went about my business.”

On occasion, the winner of a major is the player who delivers a peak performance. That certainly was the case at this tournament in 2000. More typically, where there’s the will, there’s the win. That’s why Woods cannot be counted out.

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