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.
Tiger's trouble 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 fourfooter 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 wedge."
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.