Commentary

Tiger dispels myth of golf's big three

Updated: June 16, 2012, 1:52 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- The big three was always a myth, a counterfeit USGA sell, a grouping of the most popular American stars that pushed an angle crushed by the nuclear weapons in Tiger Woods' bag.

Golf doesn't have a big three, just a big one. Woods spent two days at The Olympic Club outscoring Bubba Watson by 10 shots and Phil Mickelson by 8, reminding everyone that scandal or no scandal, major championship drought or no major championship drought, there's one transcendent golfer on the planet and a bunch of human visors just along for the ride.

"Well, it was a rough day for those two guys," Woods said Friday of Mickelson and Watson. "A rough two days."

Three days after going on and on about how much he cherished playing with Woods, about how much the presence of the 14-time major champion elevated his game, Mickelson turned his 6-over U.S. Open into his 7-over U.S. Open, leaving him 8 shots behind Woods, who shot even-par 70 to share the lead at 1-under with Jim Furyk and David Toms.

Watson? Two months after winning the Masters, 13 months after ripping Woods over his swing thoughts and tweaks, Bubba was blasted out of the water and out of the tournament, outmuscled by Tiger on the 670-yard 16th hole and sent home with a score of 9-over that did nothing for his alleged standing as golf's latest, greatest thing.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Frederic J. Brown/Getty ImagesHalfway through the 112th U.S. Open, Tiger Woods shares the lead at the Olympic Club. How did he do it? By taking what the course gave him even though he was playing with heavyweights Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson.

Woods was kind to Watson after the second round was complete, explaining that Bubba was trying to play a cut at No. 16 when Tiger outdrove him by a good 15 yards. Only this was a small-picture development that shed light on a big-picture stand.

Tiger had spent so much time playing smart, conservative golf at Olympic, avoiding the rough with long irons and fairway woods off the tees. But with fans whooping it up around the box, egging on Tiger and Bubba to throw haymakers at the monstrous hole, Woods reminded Watson that he, too, has a long history of hitting balls to the moon.

As it turned out, Tiger repelled every 36-hole challenge to his supremacy. Rory McIlroy, the defending Open champ and everyone's leading "next Tiger" candidate, missed the cut at 10-over and supplied convincing new evidence to support this truth:

There isn't going to be a "next Tiger," now or ever.

McIlroy was part of the European big three that represented the top-ranked players in the sport, a grouping that was left with a lone survivor (Lee Westwood, 5-over) and a world No. 1, Luke Donald, who was beaten silly by Olympic in another failed bid to claim his first major victory.

Of course, rankings points are meaningless when it comes to Woods. "I know he's not ranked No. 1," said his former Stanford teammate Casey Martin. "But there's nobody better than Tiger."

On the first tee Friday, after he was done with his inspiring Open run, Martin made his way to Woods to give him some support. "Go get 'em," Martin told him. "We're all pulling for you."

"Did you finish at 7-over?" Woods asked hopefully.

Martin told him he came in at 9-over, a score 1 shot north of the eventual cut line, and then Tiger headed off to hit his first drive of the day.

Woods parred the first hole and then removed his black sweater to reveal a black vest. At 2:01 p.m. PT, Tiger took the Open lead for the first time with a 5-foot birdie at the third hole.

He bogeyed out of the sand at No. 5 and then found a perilous lie on the grassy upper lip of a bunker at the next hole, a sight that inspired Woods to kick his bag and rip out his sand wedge with more than a trace of disgust. Tiger jumped down into the trap, choked up on his wedge like a slap-hitting shortstop, and took his baseball cut at a chest-high ball that came out too hot and led to another bogey.

Woods missed an 8-foot birdie attempt at No. 7, missed the 6-footer coming back, and suddenly found himself reeling and tumbling down the leaderboard. He regained control with a 20-foot birdie at No. 10, a putt that compelled him to raise his putter to the sky as it was about to drop, and returned to 1-under with a 5-footer at the par-3 13th.

Tiger missed birdie opportunities at 16 and 17 before saving par out of the sand at 18 as Aaron Rodgers, of all people, sat among the masses on a steep greenside hill. When it was over, Woods gave a heartier handshake to Mickelson's caddie, Bones Mackay, than he had offered to Mickelson himself.

"Tiger's out here to win the golf tournament, and that's it," Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava, told ESPN.com as he headed off to the driving range for a post-round session with his man. "If Phil plays great, he plays great, and if he plays poorly, he plays poorly. But I don't think it gives Tiger any extra motivation to play with either one of those guys.

"He's all about winning the U.S. Open. If it was Bo Van Pelt or whoever it might've been, it wouldn't have mattered."

But it wasn't Bo Van Pelt. It was Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, and Tiger pummeled them both.

"He's hitting it everywhere he's looking and exactly how he wants to, and he's shaping it nice," LaCava said. "I think Tiger's state is great right now. He's taking what the course will give you, and he knows it's more important to be in the fairway even if his ball is 30 yards back on certain holes.

"I think he's ready to win a major. I think he looks ready, and he's physically ready, and he's hitting all the golf shots. It's not easy, but he definitely looks ready."

Woods, or someone in Woods' camp, made a smart decision in letting the neighborly LaCava talk to the media. The new caddie helps humanize Tiger, something the old one, Steve Williams, failed to do eight days a week.

But Friday afternoon, in the company of Mickelson and Watson, Woods wasn't interested in humanizing himself. Tiger all but knocked out his opponents, outsmarted a fast and punitive golf course, and made a mockery of the USGA's false advertising.

If the blazers wanted a big three, they should have fired up some old film of Arnie, Gary and Jack. In the age of Tiger, the math adds up to only a big one.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »