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IT CAME DOWN TO THIS
ALAN SHIPNUCK
June 25, 2012
The little grin said it all.
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June 25, 2012

It Came Down To This

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Simpson's equanimity was the difference as far more celebrated players were pushed to the breaking point on a firm, fast, relentless setup. Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy, the top two ranked players in the world, missed the cut while five-time Open runner-up Phil Mickelson failed to make birdie on a par-5 and finished 65th at 16 over, his worst showing since 1994. But what will really linger is Tiger Woods's most shocking meltdown in the post--fire hydrant era.

Woods's long road back took him to the Memorial, at which he stole a victory two weeks before the Open with some vintage magic on the closing holes. At his peak Woods was defined not only by otherworldly golfing skill but also a metaphysical ability to control the outcome, willing his ball into the cup at critical times and using a kind of golf voodoo to force his opponents into blunders. The Open became a chance to further reclaim some of that mystique, and he took control of the tournament with opening rounds of 69 and 70 that were a ballstriking tour de force. Woods maneuvered his way around Olympic with high, soft butter-cuts, low, piercing trap-draws and everything in between. He was changing speeds so effectively he elicited comparisons not to Jack Nicklaus but to Matt Cain, who had kicked off Open week with a perfect game for the hometown Giants. "You talk about a pitcher having command of all his pitches? That's what Tiger was like," said Jim (Bones) Mackay, who watched Woods's first two rounds while caddying for Mickelson in the same pairing. "He's leading the Open and he hasn't made a putt yet. That's scary."

Over the first 36 holes Woods hit driver only six times, using an iron off the tee on seven of the par-4s, including the beastly 498-yard 5th hole. Woods's discipline as a tactician was thrown into sharp relief by the caveman golf of his playing partner Bubba Watson. The Masters champ mindlessly bashed driver 11 times a round, trying to dictate his brutish style to an unyielding course. Watson predictably missed the cut on rounds of 78--71. "It beat me up," Watson said, but really the carnage was self-inflicted.

Woods stuck to his game plan on Saturday but was undone by sloppy execution with his scoring clubs and a clear lack of conviction. As the round started to go pear-shaped, he took more and more practice swings, backing off shots and staring at the treetops, trying to ascertain the seaside zephyrs or, perhaps, his place in the cosmos. With a two-iron on the 14th tee, he produced a drop-kicked semitop that was one of the worst-sounding shots of his career. Still, it was his wedge play that sunk the round. In his heyday under Hank Haney, for four years running Woods was in the top five on the PGA Tour in proximity to the hole on approaches from 50 to 125 yards. He was a superintendent's best friend, picking his ball off the turf with the daintiest of divots. Now, with his reconstituted swing, Woods is taking divots the size of a $30 steak, and a corresponding lack of distance control has him 135th on Tour from 50 to 125 yards. Worse, he can no longer redeem mediocre approach shots with supernatural putting. During the third round of the Open his putts were repeatedly too meek to reach the hole. "His putter was the difference for a long, long time," says Davis Love III. "That was how he dominated. He doesn't make them all like he used to."

As a 36-hole leader in a major, Woods had never shot worse than even par in the third round, but on Saturday only eight of the 72 players who made the cut signed for a bigger number than his 75. After skidding to 14th place, Woods was asked about his confidence. "I feel good," he said. "I wasn't very far off today." Woods used to lie only to reporters. Now he's lying to himself. He began his Sunday charge by playing the first six holes in six over par, shot 73 and finished 21st, six shots back.

Woods's lost weekend should put to rest any notion that he is "back." The single-minded, indomitable player who lived in a bubble of his own making is never coming back. Woods will win more tournaments, but he's now like a lot of other guys on Tour—he can hit all the shots, but he is vulnerable to pressure and undermined by doubt.

Woods's shakiness on Saturday was in stark contrast to his steadfast playing partner. Furyk doesn't have Woods's brawny biceps, but he radiates a coal-country toughness. Growing up in Lancaster, Pa., Furyk was a quarterback, point guard and catcher. "When it comes to crunch time, he wants the ball," says Zach Johnson. "He's good at rising up and overcoming the nerves." Furyk's gritty 70 on Saturday left him tied with McDowell, two clear of the field and four up on Simpson, who had started the day in 29th place but shot into a tie for eighth, matching McDowell's 68.

McDowell stumbled at the outset of the final round, handing Furyk sole possession of the lead by the 4th hole. He guarded it jealously, even as eight players lurked within two early in the back nine. On the 12th hole Furyk drained a 30-footer to save par and seemed destined to finally add a second major championship victory (against 18 top 10s) and punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame. But he bogeyed the par-3 13th after an errant tee shot, giving Simpson his first share of the lead, and then set up the decisive bogey at 16 with a duck hook off the tee, the lowlight of a birdieless 74. McDowell made par on only four of his final 10 holes in a wild 73 and said afterward, "My caddie [Ken Comboy] has a great analogy: The U.S. Open is like a really fast, scary roller coaster that you get on and at the time you're not sure if you like it. But once it's done and you look back, you realize that you had a lot of fun and you would like to do it again."

When it was over, the protagonists went their separate ways. The insouciant McDowell, 32, was off to tip a pint or three. Webb and Dowd couldn't stop grinning at each other. They had locked eyes during the champion's press conference and again at the trophy presentation, during which he called Dowd his best friend and said, "I couldn't have done this without her support." Still, there wasn't much time to savor the victory as they were racing to catch a red-eye flight home. "Webb wants to be there when James wakes up in the morning," Dowd explained. He takes the family-man thing so seriously, he'll most likely skip next month's British Open because he doesn't want to be overseas that late in Dowd's pregnancy. Then again, skipping one major isn't a big deal, because with his precise game and unflappable demeanor Simpson figures to have the chance to win many more.

Furyk's family is also defined by the golf calendar: When he won his U.S. Open, his wife, Tabitha, was pregnant with their son. On Sunday night Tanner, eight, was heartbroken at his father's collapse, and Furyk, fighting back tears, crouched over him in the locker room, gently stroking his boy's cheek. When the Furyk family—including Caleigh, 10—finally emerged from the clubhouse, an eerie fog was shrouding the grounds. His family walked ahead to a distant parking lot, but Furyk stopped next to the practice putting green to reflect on the wrenching events of the day. At 42, he knows a precious opportunity had been lost. "I have only myself to blame," he said in a subdued voice. "I didn't hit the shots I needed to. It definitely stings." Head down, hands in his pockets, Furyk trudged into the night. He was quickly swallowed up by the mist.

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