GULLANE, Scotland – Clouds had settled over Muirfield late Sunday afternoon as Tiger Woods waded into the high fescue left of the 11th fairway and peered down at his ball, nestled deep in the grass. He was three shots off the lead. The crowd went silent. This was a critical moment.
"2-7," said caddie Joe LaCava, meaning 127 yards to the pin.
Woods plucked an iron from LaCava's grasp, turned away to spit, then dug in and went for it. Despite the lie he flushed the shot, and Woods immediately hollered "bite," but it was futile. The ball took a high bounce off the green and settled into the wispy grass behind it. Woods let out a blast of blue language that flustered a few Brits within earshot and trudged ahead, muttering.
Woods spent a lot of time talking to himself on Sunday. He went on to make a 5 at No. 11 for his second straight bogey, which effectively ended his chances of winning this Open and along with it a 15th career major championship. He signed for a final-round 74 to tie for sixth place, five shots behind Phil Mickelson.
Earlier in the day, when Woods was near the lead and the sky turned gray and the winds kicked up, you wondered if golf's ultimate grinder might just crank out a little 69 or 70 and snap that pesky five-year major drought. But instead he turned in his sloppiest round of the week. Woods hit nine of 14 fairways, his lowest total at Muirfield, and took 33 putts, which matched his high for a single round. On Sunday he had a pair of ugly three-putts, including a blown four-footer on his opening hole that might've crawled up into his head.
"I had a hard time adjusting to the speeds. They were much slower today, much softer. It was frustrating," Woods said. "We started on the first day and it progressively got slower. And that's usually the opposite at most tournaments. It usually gets faster as the week goes on, but this week it was different."
And so we now add Muirfield to Woods's ever-expanding inventory of recent major venues with mystifying greens. (See also: Augusta, Merion, Kiawah.) But this final round will also be remembered for one added dose of intrigue: Tiger's spot in the penultimate group alongside Masters champion Adam Scott, who employs Woods' former caddie Steve Williams. Woods fired Williams in the summer of 2011, and golf fans no doubt remember the ugly aftermath of that divorce. But on Sunday there was no sign of tension between the longtime partners. When Woods and Williams strolled off the tee box side-by-side on the eighth hole, they had a friendly chat all the way up the fairway. On the 18th green they shook hands and exchanged more cordial words. It appears any lingering animosity between the pair is officially dead.
Tiger's pursuit of Jack's record of 18 majors remains very much alive, but he's still stuck on 14, his chances continuing to tick away. Letting majors get away on the weekend, rather than bolting them down as he once did with such numbing regularity, has been Woods' M.O. ever since Y.E. Yang and the fire hydrant and the knee surgery and everything else that's happened since he won the 2008 U.S. Open on a mangled left leg. The good news is he keeps coming close, the bad is he's failed to break 70 on the weekend in any of his last seven majors.
More good news: Woods has won four times this year, he's back to No. 1, and it sure feels like he's contending in just about every major. Just moments after stepping off 18 he was looking ahead to his next shot at ending his major drought, at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., which begins Aug. 8.
"In that spell where I haven't won since Torrey, I've been in there," Woods said. "I've been in probably about half the majors on the back nine on Sunday with a chance to win during that stretch. I just haven't done it yet.
"And hopefully it will be in a few weeks."