Grand Opening

Grand Opening

june17_cabreraswing_299x222_0.jpg
Angel Cabrera had three birdies on the front nine.
Al Tielemens/SI

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.