PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Picking and poking his way down the slippery hill to the beach, Ernie Els searched for his golf ball. The U.S. Open lead he held for a brief glimmer of time was lost out there, too.
Phil Mickelson, meanwhile, didn’t have to do any hiking to figure out where his chance slipped away Sunday. Instead, he could simply stare at his putter.
Same thing happened to Tiger Woods.
When the final round at Pebble Beach was over, Ernie, Phil and Tiger could all say they had their chances. None, however, could convert, which is how a little-known European named Graeme McDowell found himself holding the trophy.
Els, playing some of the best golf of his life of late, got tantalizingly close to his first major championship since the 2002 British Open, but went bogey-double-bogey on Nos. 9 and 10 to throw away his chance. He finished third, three shots out of the lead.
Mickelson, the Masters winner searching for the second leg of the Grand Slam, made a birdie with a putt from off the green on No. 1, but didn’t make another one the rest of the day. He tied for fourth with Woods, who, like Mickelson, shot a 66 earlier in the tournament to put himself in a spot to win.
“I thought when I made that putt on the first hole, it was going to be a great day,” said Mickelson, who found the greens getting bumpier and more unpredictable as he worked his way around on a cool, breezy day at Pebble.
As did Woods.
“Every putt I missed was from above the hole,” he said. “Yesterday I made everything because it was all below the hole. These greens are bumpy enough where putts above the holes, it’s just pot luck.”
While Woods found himself on the wrong side of the hole for most of the day, Mickelson and Els each watched their title hopes slip away on the so-called “Cliffs of Doom” – the stretch of 8, 9 and 10 that run along the Monterey Peninsula. They are as beautiful and treacherous as they come.
Els was at 3-under par, tied with McDowell for the lead, when he came up short on his approach on No. 9, then chipped up short as well and needed two putts to get down. Bogey.
Then, the real killer: a tee shot that went off the course, over the edge, almost certainly matted in the thick grass that leads down to the beach. It’s the Pacific Ocean – the biggest water hazard in the world – and Els had the common sense to ask a rules official if he would be penalized for touching the ground as he picked his way down the hill, trying to keep his balance.
No problem there. But he never found his ball. And when he came back onto terra firma to drop, he chunked it, hit that ball into the tall grass, as well, and was lucky to make a 6 from there.
A decent save for most – just not when you’re trying to win the U.S. Open.
It was down below on that same sand two days earlier that beachgoers wrote “Go Phil!” in the sand. A great scene, and fitting on Friday, when Mickelson was figuring out his putter, going low, shooting 66 – a number Woods matched the next day for the lowest scores at Pebble Beach all week.
Mickelson looked like a favorite heading into the weekend. But Saturday, he was teetering precariously on the hill after an awful approach on No. 9 – Lefty forced to turn his club around and hit righty. He made a double-bogey there that marked the official end of his hot streak.
Mickelson spent the rest of the tournament playing catch-up, a reality captured best when, trailing McDowell by three with three holes left, he went pin hunting on No. 16 and left the ball buried in the deep rough.
“I took a chance, it didn’t pay off,” he told his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay.
No way to argue with that one.