No use pretending otherwise. Tiger Woods is the fulcrum of the U.S. Open. The event's appeal pivots on his leader-board presence and weekend performance. The Open doesn't need him in contention to be a good golf tournament. It does need him to provide context -- and television eyeballs.
Saturday at the Olympic Club, the fulcrum wobbled. The fulcrum was unsteady. The fulcrum missed way too many putts. The fulcrum displayed bad body language and strangely shaky fairway irons.
Oh, yes. The fulcrum may also have a sore right hand after banging it on a camera slung from a photographer's waist. The freak accident occurred as Woods climbed the stairs from the 18th green to the clubhouse in tight quarters.After the collision, Woods shook his wrist up and down, in obvious pain for a few seconds.
"Tough day all around," Woods said afterward, though he claimed his wrist was "fine."
His chances to win the Open were not. At least as a front-runner, the classic way he has won in the past. Woods began Saturday in a tie for the tournament lead but never found a groove and shot his worst round of the week, a 5-over-par 75, to fall into a tie for 14th place at 4 over par for the tournament.
"I'm definitely still in the ballgame," Woods said. "I'm only five shots back. And that's certainly doable on this golf course, for sure."
If he says so. Given what Woods could do if he's totally on top of his game, you can't call him
But here's the real problem for Woods: He must not merely surpass McDowell and Furyk but also leapfrog 11 other people to win the trophy come sundown. So even if Woods shoots 2 or 3 under par, 13 people must do worse. All of them.
"I'm just going to have to shoot a good round tomorrow and post early and see what happens," Woods said. "It's just a few birdies here and there. It's not like you have to go out there and shoot 62 or 63. this is a U.S. Open. You just need to hang around ... because anything can happen at the last three holes."
After what we've seen all week, it's hard to argue. It's often said that you can't win a tournament in a Saturday third round, but you can lose it. On this Saturday, though, Woods came about as close to the "losing it" edge as someone can get.
It's impossible to imagine a more gorgeous June day near the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco. But the hot temperatures baked the greens, and by the time Woods teed off shortly after 3 p.m., you had to figure putting would be the key to scoring well.
That turned out to be true. Woods was paired with Furyk, a former U.S. Open winner, and he outplayed Woods in every aspect of the game, especially on the putting surface. Yet for all of Furyk's skill and steadiness -- he shot even par for the day -- he was far less interesting to watch. Furyk is one of those steely-eyed guys who probably wins every poker hand where bluffing is required. He doesn't show his emotions much.
Woods, by comparison, is an open book even though he tries hard to not display any clues about what's percolating through his mind. But he can't help himself sometimes. As he bogeyed four of the first eight holes, either by missing greens or missing putts, Woods' shoulders became less square.
His most egregious bogey happened at the eighth green when he missed a 3-footer for par. After that, it was a matter of his trying to hold together the round.
"I struggled on the greens," he admitted. "They looked quick, but they putted slow ... And probably about three fairways, I missed just probably by about three or four yards. And that makes a big difference."
The optics continued to look bad. At the 14th tee, Woods shook his wrist and then, after hitting a stinger of an iron shot off the tee, let loose his grip on the club and dropped it a few feet in front of him with a disgusted look. Two holes later at the monster 670-yard, par-5 No. 16, Woods shook and snapped his right shoulder before hitting his drive and taking his right hand off the grip on the follow through.
Woods' shoulders slumped again when he missed the green on No. 17, where he could have made birdie but instead made par. He finished with a bogey at No. 18 and then had the unfortunate camera-banging incident.
Things could turn around Sunday. But you're reminded of something Jack Nicklaus once said. Nicklaus has the record of 18 major championships that Woods, with 14, is chasing.
Nicklaus once explained that in the latter years of his career, he was convinced that if you put him on the 15th tee of a major championship on Sunday within one stroke of the lead, he could win more than half the time. The catch, Nicklaus said, was that he was having more and more trouble getting to the 15th tee in that situation because it was harder to stay consistent through the first three-plus days of tournaments.
If Woods gets to the 15th tee Sunday and he's five shots out of the lead instead of one, Nicklaus will likely be watching somewhere. And nodding.
Contact Mark Purdy at email@example.com or 408-920-5092.