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A palpable hunger to win has always defined Woods's career, but at Oakmont it was Cabrera who had the urgency of a man playing for his supper. He grew up in the town of Cordoba, the son of a laborer. At 10 Cabrera left school to work as a caddie at the Cordoba Golf Club. "I had to help put food on the table," he says. Cabrera taught himself the game on Mondays when the club was closed and caddies were allowed to play. His natural talent was nurtured by Eduardo (El Gato) Romero, another Cordoba native. Romero, a longtime fixture in international golf circles and now a force on the senior circuit, bankrolled his prot�g� in 1995 while Cabrera was trying to launch his career on the European tour.
For most of the 1990s Cabrera was considered an extremely talented underachiever, a titanium-denting basher who had never mastered the art of winning. Ironically, it was Woods who helped him break through. In 2000 the World Cup of Golf was played at Buenos Aires Country Club, with Cabrera and Romero representing the host country and Woods and David Duval flying the Stars and Stripes. Tiger was at the tail end of the greatest season in golf history, and his appearance was billed as the biggest thing to happen to South American sport--nonf�tbol division--since Muhammad Ali fought a pair of exhibitions in Buenos Aires in 1971. The Americans won the Cup, but Cabrera and Romero battled them to the final putt. "For my confidence it was a very big thing," Cabrera says.
Not long after the World Cup, Cabrera won the 2001 Open de Argentina, his first victory in five years. Two significant European tour victories followed, in addition to six more wins in South America. In 2005 Cabrera played in the Presidents Cup and was one of the standouts for the International team, impressing teammates with his game and his want.
"He's very shy, very quiet, but there is so much passion inside," says Michael Campbell, who teamed with Cabrera three times at the Presidents Cup. "After one of our matches he picked me up and nearly squeezed the life out of me."
Campbell still winces at the memory of the hug. "The guy's a bull," he says. "He might be the strongest man in golf. There's no rough he can't muscle the ball out of. That's a tremendous advantage around a course like this."
Last week Oakmont was as big a story as any of the players. It is to the U.S. Open as St. Andrews is to the British Open--embodying the very soul of the tournament. Oakmont has hosted more national championships than any other venue and boasts a roll call of Hall of Fame winners, including Tommy Armour (1927), Ben Hogan ('53), Nicklaus ('62), Johnny Miller ('73) and Larry Nelson ('83). The Oakmont mystique is jealously guarded by its members, who brag about the toughness of their course the same way that some men go on about their jacked-up pickups--perhaps to compensate for some other inadequacy.
So you can imagine the panic among the membership when, the day before the start of the Open, the USGA trimmed the rough for the second time in a week. Then that night nearly half an inch of rain fell, taking more bite out of the course. Nick Dougherty, a flashy young Englishman, took the early lead with a two-under-par 68 and then rubbed it in afterward, saying, "I think the course is, I hate to say easy, but. . . ."
Even though 28 players failed to make a birdie on Thursday--including Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garc�a, Zach Johnson, Paul Casey and K.J. Choi, all of whom are in the top 17 in the World Ranking--Mickey Pohl, the tournament chairman, received more than two dozen e-mails overnight from fellow Oakmont members voicing displeasure that their course was not inducing enough suffering.
Before the second round the greens were rolled and all the compassion squeezed out of Oakmont. In hotter, breezier conditions there were only two rounds in the 60s-- Casey's 66 was the equivalent of a 58 at the Phoenix Open--and 35 in the 80s. Thanks to a 71, Cabrera led at even par. Woods was in 13th place at five over. Asked if the USGA was on the verge of losing the course, a la Shinnecock in 2004, Woods said, "It's close. It's right on the edge, I think."
Extensive watering kept the putting surfaces playable for the weekend, and during the third round Woods took advantage of the softer conditions, hitting 17 of 18 greens in a beautiful display of ball control. His 69 pushed him from 13th to second, two back of callow Aussie Aaron Baddeley (who would never recover from an opening triple bogey on Sunday).