- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The only person who still thinks Tiger Woods is going to win this U.S. Open is Tiger Woods. And, OK, maybe his caddie Steve Williams. And possibly Woods' mom.
But that's it. Everyone else sees what Woods doesn't: that his game is as sharp as a golf ball, that his putter needs to visit a shrink, that nobody on the Pebble Beach leaderboard is scared of him.
The Woods of 2000, when he won here by 15 strokes, or even the Woods of 2008, when he won the Open at Torrey Pines on one leg, no longer exists. That guy, that larger-than-all-our-lives mystique, that dry-ice/cold-persona vanished the moment TMZ started counting his mistresses.
But here's Woods, still clinging to the semi-ridiculous hope that he can leave Pebble Beach with a fourth Open championship. Doesn't matter if he's seven strokes behind 36-hole leader Graeme McDowell, or trails a two dozen other players, or that his game still squeaks from the rust.
"Well, I'm right there," he said Friday. "I'm right there in the championship. I just need to make a few more birdies, a few more putts on the weekend and I'll be right there."
And this from Ernie Els, who played with Woods during the first two rounds: "I think he's very close. I haven't played with him in about a year. I think his ball-striking was pretty good the last two days. His short game is pretty sharp. He just didn't make enough putts. ... I think it's only a matter of time before he starts getting in his [zone]."
If this were pre-scandal Tiger, I might buy it. But it isn't. This version of Woods can't overpower a major right now. Not enough muscle tone. His mind, out of habit, says yes. But his swing says no.
Woods shot a 1-over-par 72 on Friday to go along with his 3-over-par 74 on Thursday. He botched a chance to take full advantage of an early morning tee time and its soft-as-kitten-fur conditions.
Think about it. The wind could barely blow out a candle. The sun took a nap, which meant the poa annua greens behaved better in the moist, overcast conditions. And Woods still couldn't break par.
"I just need to keep progressing and keep moving my way up the board," he said. "It's a long haul. The U.S. Open is not going to get easier as the week goes on -- especially on the weekend. And from what I hear it's supposed to be overcast, so I'm sure there will be a few more birdies than we normally would see."
I'm confused. The Open isn't going to get easier, but Woods said we'll see more birdies because of the overcast skies?
Woods had three birdies Friday, but also four bogeys. He putted better on the freckled greens of Pebble (29 putts, compared to 34 on Thursday), but you can tell the poa drives him nuts. After a missed putt here and there, Woods would move his hand in a squiggly motion, just to make sure we knew the ball had tacked back and forth like a sailboat. A day earlier he had called the putting surfaces "just awful."
Said Woods: "We were all talking about that this morning on the range. You just got to ask the guys."
Phil Mickelson wasn't talking about it. He blamed his putting stroke, not the poa, for his Thursday problems. Then he came out Friday afternoon and rolled in all sorts of birdie putts en route to a 66, good enough to be tied for second after 36 holes.
Woods needs to quit whining about the greens. He sounds like someone who needs warm milk and a sippy bottle.
First of all, it's not like he's the only guy in the field who has to putt on the stuff. And I don't recall hearing him complain when he vaporized the field here in 2000 and won at Torrey -- again, on poa -- two years ago. So, please, stuff a headcover in it.
Poa isn't the reason why Woods won't win his 15th major this week; history is.
Woods has never won a major when he starts the third round positioned lower than tied for fifth. He's never won a Tour event when starting the third round lower than T-20.
And just to complete the number-whipping, remember that in Woods' three previous U.S. Open victories he has been in first or second and always under par after 36 holes. In other words, Woods won't be smooching silver on Sunday.
"It's a long process," he said. "This is a tournament where you don't win it with one round, but you can lose it with one round. And you just got to keep making progress and, as I said, it's a long process winning a U.S. Open."
Woods lost it with two rounds: the sketchy, grindy 74 on Thursday and the so-so 72 on Friday. There are too many players in front of him and too many reasons against him.
The only one who doesn't know it is Woods.
"I feel very good," he said. "I'm right there and I'm only, what, seven back. And this is a long haul at a U.S. Open. This is a long haul."
He's right. Woods and his game remain under construction. He isn't ready to win a major -- not yet. Accept or it not, the long haul continues.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
16hEthan Sherwood Strauss