Swing and two misses: Pinehurst, perhaps alone in golf, has somehow eluded Tiger Woods

There was one brief moment of hope, of sudden anticipation, when Tiger Woods made a short birdie putt on the 72nd hole, 19 years ago Sunday. The sun was setting, church bells rang in the village and dust blew across the 18th fairway at Pinehurst No. 2 in the gloaming, but for a second what everyone in the packed grandstands hoped to see once again became a distant possibility.

The birdie pulled Woods within two shots of Michael Campbell, who was playing the 17th hole behind him, a last-second resurrection after Woods appeared to throw away his best shot at the 2005 U.S. Open with bogeys on 16 and 17, the rare moment in his career when he wilted while contending on the final day, in the final holes of a major.

There was very little collective confidence in Campbell not to do likewise — the unlikely Kiwi had been summoning composure in portable toilets during the final round — and a playoff certainly seemed to have veered within the realm of realistic outcomes. But Woods had barely walked off the green when Campbell’s birdie at 17 posted on the scoreboard. The grandstands started to empty, even with two groups still to come through. Woods, denied six years earlier by Payne Stewart and Phil Mickelson, a supporting actor in their astounding drama, had fallen short again.

Pinehurst Resort and Country Club holds a distinct and unlikely place in the Woods panoply, a place where he has been left wanting as much if not more than any other. Woods has twice come to Pinehurst the favorite, and twice nearly conquered, and twice left frustrated. Here turns this week as a much older man still looking for the success that has so far eluded him in the Sandhills.

“I’ve had a little bit of success here,” Woods said Tuesday, which for someone who’s had as much success as anyone since the first shepherd picked up the first piece of driftwood to whack a pebble is a lot bit less than he’s had just about everywhere else.

He was two shots behind Stewart in 1999, at the peak of his youthful powers, and two shots behind Campbell in 2005 at the end of a day that dawned with everyone expecting him to seize control and claim victory, during an era when such improbabilities had become routine as the red Sunday shirt. Even his absence in 2014 was notable, the end of his mid-career renaissance. He was forced to withdraw in the wake of the first of his four back surgeries, after surmounting personal and physical collapses to reclaim the No. 1 ranking.

In addition to his 15 major titles, Woods has finished within two shots of the winner nine times. Two of those happened here. A top-20 finish this week, however unlikely, and he would be only the third player in the past century to finish in the top 20 in the U.S. Open at the same venue three times — an amazing record of success, especially given his disappointments at Pinehurst came amid his era of greatest dominance. (Gary Player and Sam Snead are the others, making it one of the few golfing fraternities to which Woods has yet to gain admittance.)

It’s a golf course, and an Open venue, that has become synonymous with Woods’ very few close calls. It’s not alone, to be sure. Woods hasn’t won at Oakmont. Or Baltusrol. Or Shinnecock. But he’s so come achingly close at Pinehurst, despite visiting at the peak of his powers, and has only one victory to show for it: The 1992 Big I Junior Classic, played on No. 7. Not exactly the Wanamaker Trophy.

Woods was five years away from his first Masters win then. He’s five years removed from his last Masters win now, no longer the player he was in 1999 or 2005, a much older man, reconstructed, who has not surprisingly struggled to meet the physical demands posed by up-and-down courses like Augusta and Southern Hills.

But Pinehurst is relatively flat and eminently walkable. The rounds will be slow-paced as players navigate the unfamiliar and increasingly treacherous green complexes. His aching and aging joints will move freely in the heat. He showed flashes of his undeniable talent at the Masters. It’s not out of the question that this course, where the challenges are often mental as much as they are physical, could play to his remaining strengths.

“I feel like I have the strength to be able to do it,” Woods said. “It’s just a matter of doing it. This golf course is going to test every single aspect of your game, especially mentally, and just the mental discipline that it takes to play this particular golf course, it’s going to take a lot.”

As stacked as the odds are against him — he’s made the cut at the open once in four tries since 2013 — this may be his last chance to compete for the triumph that has come so close but remained so far away at Pinehurst. (He’ll be 53 when the Open returns in 2029.) Woods walked away frustrated as the commanding favorite in his previous two attempts, but he’s only a sentimental favorite this time around, two years older than Jack Nicklaus was at Augusta in 1986, but two years younger than Mickelson was at Kiawah in 2021.

It’s been so long since Woods seemed destined to leave his mark at Pinehurst. So much time has passed. Perhaps he still can yet. This twice felt like his tournament to lose. Maybe it’s now his to finally win.

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