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.
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 four seconds.
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.
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 protege 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 nonfutbol 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 Garcia, 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).
On Saturday night Woods's swing coach, Hank Haney, was asked where the third round ranked in the pantheon of Woods's ball-striking performances since the two began working together in 2003.
"The best," said Haney. "On the hardest course in the world, when he absolutely had to have it? It's the best. It has to be."
Yet there was also the sense that Woods had missed an opportunity to put a stranglehold on the tournament, as he repeatedly burned the edges of the cup en route to taking 35 putts.
"That was as good as golf can be played," Dougherty, Woods's playing partner, said, "but if he had putted even halfway decent, there would be a lot of daylight between Tiger and everybody else. Sixty-nine was absolutely the worst score he could have shot."
The same would be said of Cabrera's final round. Though he looked jittery for a hole or two down the stretch, he showed serious cojones on the 72nd tee, ripping the drive of his life, a rocket of some 350 yards right down the middle. After tidying up with a deft two putt Cabrera retired to the stifling locker room to await his fate. (Oakmont members consider air conditioning to be for weenies.)
He called his wife and two sons back in Argentina and madly scrolled through a series of congratulatory text messages. As he paced among the lockers, Cabrera was making a concerted effort not to look at the many TVs in the room. Nervous? "What do you think?" he said in English, though throughout the week he had relied on an interpreter for his interviews. ("He speaks English better than he lets on," says Campbell, "and I wish he'd always speak it so fans could get to know him. But he's not very confident with it in public settings.")
Cabrera finally settled in front of a TV to see what Woods was made of, just as Johnson had at the Masters. The stony silence was broken only when PGA Tour veteran Jerry Kelly barged in to give Cabrera an exuberant high five.
"I love the guy," Kelly said. "We like to give each other forearm shivers every now and then. For fun."
Back on the TV, Woods missed one final birdie putt, and just like that Cabrera had won the 107th U.S. Open. Those close to Woods believe that his recent disappointments are an aberration, not the beginning of something larger.
"He'll figure out whatever it is that's going on, and he'll come back stronger from this hungrier and more motivated," says Stuart Appleby, a friend and neighbor.
Whether Cabrera can build on his unexpected triumph is an intriguing question, but on Sunday he was content to bask in the moment. After sharing an ecstatic hug with Tagle and his caddie, Eddie Gardino, Cabrera was hustled out of the clubhouse for the trophy ceremony on the 18th green. (The former Cordoba caddie also took possession of a $1.26 million winner's check.)
Cabrera was led across an elevated footbridge. Before descending the steps to the green, he stopped to take in the sweeping view of this famous course. The grandstands surrounding the 18th green were still packed, and the crowd erupted at the sight of the man who had vanquished Tiger. With a huge grin Cabrera took off his hat and waved it in the air. For a minute he looked a little like Eva Peron on the balcony of the Casa Rosada, but Cabrera didn't make any speeches. He didn't have to. The revolution had already been televised.