|With the ball from his approach at No. 5 nowhere(?) to be found, Tiger Woods gets a drop. (AP)|
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The ball had barely landed when a cranky Tiger Woods turned to his caddie and took the liberty of muttering under his breath about the end result.
His tee shot on the par-3 13th hole had sailed long, to about 40 feet, and the former world No. 1 was none too happy about it.
"I got the wrong gust," he groused.
It morphed from gust to disgust soon thereafter.
The former world No. 1 three-putted for a bogey and eventually finished the midpoint of the Wells Fargo Championship at a lackluster level par on Friday. Well, it was the halfway point for some.
In a development that nobody envisioned, he finished 36 holes in search of a swing most folks thought he had sorted out earlier this spring. On the heels of his disappointing finish at the Masters, the week represented another regression.
"It takes hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of golf balls, but eventually it comes around," Woods said, optimistically. "I've had my share of successes and I know it's coming."
He has hit a virtual million shots in his past two visits to Charlotte alone.
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Never in his pro career had Woods missed the cut twice at the same event, but at Quail Hollow Club, he was sent home early two starts in succession. In 2010, his last appearance in Charlotte, he blew up and missed the cut with rounds of 74 and 79, his worst performance as a professional in several regards.
This week wasn't nearly that ghastly, but it wasn't a prom picture, either.
"Struggle is a good word for it," caddie Joe LaCava said. "I think he'd tell you everything was mediocre."
That would make a good epitaph for the potentially short week, really. The world No. 7 missed too many putts -- including five from inside 14 feet in his first seven holes Friday -- and wasn't particularly sharp in any regard. Even an eyebrow-raising ruling that kept alive his slim hopes of making the weekend might not have been enough to change his fate.
The conspiracy theorists will have a field day with what transpired on the fifth hole, his 14th of the day, as will the folks who believe in kismet. After hammering a driver down the middle of the par-5 hole, Woods yanked his approach dead left from 261 yards, the shot crashing into trees near the green. At that point in the round, he was one stroke outside the projected cutline with five holes to play.
"The next thing you know we get down there and there's hundreds of people and no ball," Woods said.
The day then devolved into something mirroring a Law & Order episode, with rules officials interviewing alleged witnesses among the throng of Woods fans who were watching. When Woods arrived, his ball was nowhere to be found, even though the area was mostly covered with pine straw and a few skinny pine trees. After a lengthy search, PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell asked fans encircling the area what had happened.
Two men told him they had seen the ball hit the trees and come to rest in a clear patch of pine straw, at which point fans quickly surrounded the ball and obscured their view. The rest is pure conjecture, because the ball disappeared, leaving Russell to assume it had been pocketed by a fan, though nobody witnessed that happening. He gave Woods a free drop and assessed no penalty for the lost ball, though the rules require veritable certainty in situations of fan interference.
"Based on the evidence there, it looked like to me somebody picked up the ball," Russell said.
It was partial, and circumstantial, to be sure. After Russell granted Woods the reprieve, another fan stepped forward and disputed the earlier version of events, claiming he was standing in the area when the ball landed in the trees and that it never reached the ground. By then, it was too late.
"Why didn't you say that [earlier]?" Russell asked the man. "You heard the conversation going on."
Russell said that if the swiped-ball theory had been disputed, he might have sent Woods back to hit a second shot from the fairway, with two shots added to his score for a lost ball. Obviously, the ball was, indeed, lost.
"It was a very weird situation," Russell said.
Woods knocked the pitch shot on the green and salvaged par. Playing partner Geoff Ogilvy, who had already hit his approach shot, had walked ahead of Woods and said he was 50-60 yards from where the latter's ball hit the trees and started falling downward. It landed behind the fans, so he never saw it on the ground, either.
"It got picked up by a fan, there can't be any doubt," Ogilvy said. "I guess there's a chance it went under the pine straw but probably not with 500 people around."
Some might call it kismet, but Woods wasn't able to capitalize on the reprieve. With four more holes to make a birdie to give him a shot of making the weekend, it only got worse. On the par-5 seventh, he laid up to 105 yards, then nearly knocked a wedge into a greenside water hazard. He saved par with a 19-footer.
On the penultimate eighth, had a four-footer for birdie that he tried to jam into the hole, but it lipped out, leaving the ninth as his last resort. He bogeyed the hole on Thursday and could only knock his approach to 49 feet, and missed the birdie putt.
"Well, it's frustration," he said. "I finished, what, 12 back of the lead, and I'm [likely] not playing the weekend where I have a chance to compete for a title. I've missed my share of cuts in the past, and they don't feel good."
Never as a pro has he missed one at the same event twice, however. Woods has missed the cut twice at the Byron Nelson, but once was as an amateur, and he twice was sent home for the weekend as an amateur at Riviera. Ogilvy said it wasn't as bad as it sounded.
"If he holed putts he'd be in contention," Ogilvy said before backing it down a notch, "or at least he wouldn't [possibly] be out of the tournament."
Rest assured, nobody saw this coming in March, not even the detractors. After his career-worst victory drought ended six weeks ago a win at Bay Hill, snapping a 30-month winless stretch in PGA Tour play, Woods seemed to have recaptured some of the old magic. But his performances at the Masters, where he finished T40 and never contended, and this week in Charlotte were ordinary at best for a pedestrian player.
In fact, Woods has now recorded eight straight rounds without cracking 70, and is a combined 2 over in that stretch. He never broke par in four rounds at Augusta National, where he was the pre-tournament favorite. It left Woods facing the same old questions and offering up the same old answers, which don't tend to provide much clarity to anybody.
"Obviously we've changed a bunch of different things, and every now and again I fall into the same stuff, old stuff," said Woods, who began overhauling his swing 20 months ago. "That doesn't work with a combo platter of old and new."
Over the past two days, it was more splatter than platter.