What ever happened
to Tiger Woods? You remember him, right? Big smile, flawless putting stroke and
an aura so intimidating that other players' mock turtlenecks would get tighter
at the very sight of his name on the leader board. Woods may lead the PGA Tour
in victories, scoring average and all-important FedEx Cup points, but the story
of the year in golf is that something has gone missing in Tiger's game. The
most ruthless closer the sport has known has developed a vulnerability when it
matters most, and it cost him last week's U.S. Open, just as it did the Masters
earlier this year.
Angel Cabrera, a
37-year-old European tour veteran from Argentina, won the national championship
with a fearless final-round 69 at Oakmont Country Club, but this Open is
destined to be remembered as a tournament that Woods let get away.
began early on Sunday, when from the middle of the third fairway he airmailed
the green and then skulled a pitch, fluffed a chip and babied a putt. These are
the kind of crippling mistakes he never used to make, and the double bogey sent
him tumbling from a tie for the lead into eighth place. Woods fought his way
back into a share of the lead as late as the 8th hole, but on 11, again from
the fairway, he fanned his approach into a bunker on the short side and made a
momentum-halting bogey, falling two behind Cabrera. Desperately needing
birdies--he had made only one since the 4th�hole on Saturday-- Woods
stiffed his tee shot on the par-3 13th, leaving a four-footer that he called an
"easy little putt, downhill right to left." He barely grazed the high
side of the hole.
When Cabrera nearly
holed his approach on 15 his lead swelled to three strokes, but back-to-back
bogeys let Woods back in the ball game. ( Jim Furyk, who made three consecutive
back-nine birdies, was in the hunt as well; he came to the 17th tied for the
lead, but a misadventure there left him a shot short.) Down one playing 17, a
par-4 of a mere 306 yards, Woods's drive found a perfect lie in a greenside
bunker. In the old days--say, the latter half of 2006--getting up and down for
a tying birdie would have been a gimme, but Woods's bunker shot ran across the
green into the rough and he had to scramble for par. "I hit a nice bunker
shot," Woods said, "but I could tell I caught a rock on my
Tiger used to make
birdies, not excuses.
On the 72nd hole he
had one last chance, but his drive drifted right into the first cut of rough,
and from there Woods was unable to put enough juice on his approach, which
skittered 30 feet above the hole. He played too much break on the putt, his
Open dreams expiring a foot wide right. Afterward Woods was at a loss to
explain his inability to close the deal. "I certainly played well all
week," he said. "I just need to analyze it and see what went right and
what went wrong."
For Cabrera the
only question was what he would drink out of his glittering trophy.
"Everything," predicted Manuel Tagle, his lifelong friend and now his
agent. "Beer, wine, his favorite Italian liqueur, Fernet Blanca. . . ."
Cabrera would be toasting not only his first win in the U.S. but also the first
U.S. Open victory by a South American, exactly 40 years after another
Argentine, Roberto De Vicenzo, beat Jack Nicklaus at the British Open. Cabrera
and De Vicenzo will now forever be linked, just as Woods and Nicklaus have
become inextricably intertwined.
With 12 major
championships already in the bank, Tiger is still a good bet to break the
Bear's alltime record of 18, but at this rate he might first get to Jack's
other record, of 19 runner-up finishes. In his first 21 majors as a pro, Woods,
31, had seven wins and no seconds. In his last 21 majors he has five wins and
This Open letdown
called to mind Woods's sloppy final round two months ago at the Masters, during
which he held a share of the lead on the front nine only to be undone by a
series of unforced errors. That performance came on the heels of a quarterfinal
loss at the Match Play Championship, in which, for the first time, Woods
flat-out choked on a crucial putt, in this case a four-footer that would have
ended his match against Nick O'Hern. Woods lost on the next hole and afterward
blamed the missed putt on a ball mark that he failed to see.
In the wake of the
Match Play and the Masters, the Tour's uppity truth-teller, Rory Sabbatini, had
said he liked the "new Tiger" because "he's more beatable now than
ever." As is his wont, Woods subsequently gave Sabbatini a beatdown on the
course and in the press, but that couldn't diminish the basic correctness of
Sabbatini's assessment. There's no question that Woods still burns to win, and
he has not slacked off his punishing workouts on the practice tee or in the
gym. But he is no longer a golfing automaton. He has a life. His wife, Elin, is
due with the couple's first child any day now. To make room for the baby, the
Woodses are overseeing the construction of their dream house on a $44.5 million
spread on Jupiter Island, Fla. As part of his commitment to build more youth
learning centers, Woods has been busy organizing a new Tour event, the AT&T
National, which is to be played in two weeks in Washington, D.C., with the
Tiger Woods Foundation as the primary beneficiary. Then there's his burgeoning
course-design business to worry about.