Commentary

Friendly pairing might have hurt Tiger

Updated: June 17, 2012, 3:09 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- Tiger Woods was trudging up the steep hill behind the 18th green, cutting himself a path with his robo-glare and that invisible Do Not Disturb sign dangling from his neck, when a crouching photographer delivered the final indignity of the day.

The newsman was up and under Woods, going for the front-page shot of raw anguish, when Tiger slammed his right hand against the camera. Woods almost completely doubled over and kept shaking the hand in an exaggerated, this-really-really-hurts way as the pain tightened his face into a knot.

"I'm fine," he insisted afterward, even if his hand wasn't any better than his mood.

Tiger had carried a share of first place into his third round of the U.S. Open on Saturday and his pairing with Jim Furyk, a friend and teammate in international events. Woods had blown away Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson during the first two rounds, and had built an impressive record of winning majors when leading over the weekend, inspiring many to believe Tiger would take this tournament by the throat.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods and Jim Furyk
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesTiger Woods and Jim Furyk have played on many Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams together over the years. Woods has even admitted to admiring his older friend.

But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to a fourth Open title and the end of a four-year major championship drought. The Olympic Club course that had agreed with Woods in Rounds 1 and 2, that had embraced his game plan of precision and patience over power and emotion, suddenly turned against him, and left him feeling like Phil and Bubba felt Thursday.

Woods shot a 5-over 75, or 5 strokes north of Furyk's number, and everyone scrambled to come up with a reason why. As in, why did Woods miss as many fairways (seven) as he did across his first 36 holes? Why did he play his worst third round ever when starting with the lead? Why did he end up with six bogeys and one lousy birdie on a day when 13 lesser golfers managed to break par?

Start with Tiger's pairings, then and now. He has a chilled relationship with Mickelson, who all but performed cartwheels over his tee time with Tiger, and he has a distant relationship with Watson, who angered Woods last year by criticizing his constant meddling with his swing.

Just like Michael Jordan and so many other decorated champs, Woods has a history of using real and imagined slights to sharpen his focus and fuel his fire.

But again, Furyk is a friend and teammate who has earned Tiger's respect. Asked Friday about the 2003 Open champ, Woods allowed that he "admired" Furyk's course management, that they thought alike and that they made for "such great partners in the Cups." Asked Tuesday about the upcoming big three showdown with Phil and Bubba, Woods said the Open was too taxing to engage in any small talk.

The vibe was altogether different Saturday, even if Furyk's caddie, Fluff Cowan, was famously sacked by Woods in a different life.

"The fact that I lost the job, or got fired by Tiger, doesn't affect my relationship with him," Cowan said after his man earned a share of the 54-hole lead with Graeme McDowell. "I like Tiger."

So does Furyk, who entered the matchup knowing Woods liked him, too, and accepted him as a worthy opponent. Furyk wasn't intimidated by Tiger or by the prospect of getting hammered by Tiger, because people don't get intimidated by their friends.

"Jim Furyk is going to play his game regardless of who he's playing with," Cowan said as he walked away from the Olympic clubhouse. "Jim's not going to be intimidated by Tiger Woods or anybody else." That was clear Saturday, when Furyk didn't play like a guy who needed a jolt of the energy drink he endorses. Woods, meanwhile, couldn't hit his approach shots close enough and couldn't make any putts of consequence. His bright green shirt providing none of the magic of his Sunday red, he threw on a beige sweater on the par-5 17th.

He missed a birdie putt there, too.

Woods was so out of his element all day, he nearly fell flat on his rump in the sand at No. 7 before catching himself on the bunker's lip. He would free-fall all the way into a tie for 14th, landing a shot behind a high school kid, Beau Hossler, whose brief hold of the Open lead Friday brought out the cold competitor inside Woods.

Asked to compliment a 17-year-old who was doing something quite remarkable, Tiger batted away the question, mentioned his own failed Open bid as a 20-year-old in 1996 and said of Hossler, "I think he's kind of made a few mistakes as well."

Woods wouldn't even cut a teenager a break in a major, and truth be told, that's why he's won 14 of them.

Only Tiger didn't have any mental edge on Furyk, a grinder's grinder, a 40-something who's seen it all.

"You can really get caught up playing with him just from the amount of media, from the amount of attention, cameras," Furyk said. "He had to lay it up on 1, and the crowd is yelling, 'Take advantage of it, Jimmy, try to get ahead of him.'

"I wasn't playing Tiger Woods today. ... I tried today not to worry about his game or how he was playing. I didn't watch him take a lot of swings."

Furyk was too busy beating Woods to study him. It felt like match play out there, even if Tiger said it didn't.

"He and I didn't conversate much," Woods said, "and that's normally how we are when we play."

But then Tiger conceded there was some supportive banter here and there, some of it about the deceptive greens. "That's something Jim and I talked about today when we were playing," he said. "It was surprising that they were not as quick as they looked."

Woods wasn't having that conversation with Mickelson, the star he never wanted as a partner at the Ryder Cup. American captains struggled for years trying to come up with the right teammate for Tiger, and Furyk (and Steve Stricker) filled the void.

So what's love (or friendship) got to do with it? The Woods-Furyk dynamic at Olympic lacked any trace of tension, helping the underdog and, for the moment, toppling the favorite.

Woods has never won a major with a Sunday comeback, and that's why he was working the putting green in the gathering post-round darkness, honing his stroke with his coach, Sean Foley.

But if Woods fails to make history at this Open, it won't necessarily be because he played with the wrong putter.

It might be because he played with the wrong guy.

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 »