What ever happenedto Tiger Woods? You remember him, right? Big smile, flawless putting stroke andan aura so intimidating that other players' mock turtlenecks would get tighterat the very sight of his name on the leader board. Woods may lead the PGA Tourin victories, scoring average and all-important FedEx Cup points, but the storyof the year in golf is that something has gone missing in Tiger's game. Themost ruthless closer the sport has known has developed a vulnerability when itmatters most, and it cost him last week's U.S. Open, just as it did the Mastersearlier this year.
Angel Cabrera, a37-year-old European tour veteran from Argentina, won the national championshipwith a fearless final-round 69 at Oakmont Country Club, but this Open isdestined to be remembered as a tournament that Woods let get away.
Tiger's troublebegan early on Sunday, when from the middle of the third fairway he airmailedthe green and then skulled a pitch, fluffed a chip and babied a putt. These arethe kind of crippling mistakes he never used to make, and the double bogey senthim tumbling from a tie for the lead into eighth place. Woods fought his wayback into a share of the lead as late as the 8th hole, but on 11, again fromthe fairway, he fanned his approach into a bunker on the short side and made amomentum-halting bogey, falling two behind Cabrera. Desperately needingbirdies--he had made only one since the 4th¬†hole on Saturday--Woodsstiffed his tee shot on the par-3 13th, leaving a four-footer that he called an"easy little putt, downhill right to left." He barely grazed the highside of the hole.
When Cabrera nearlyholed his approach on 15 his lead swelled to three strokes, but back-to-backbogeys let Woods back in the ball game. (Jim Furyk, who made three consecutiveback-nine birdies, was in the hunt as well; he came to the 17th tied for thelead, but a misadventure there left him a shot short.) Down one playing 17, apar-4 of a mere 306 yards, Woods's drive found a perfect lie in a greensidebunker. In the old days--say, the latter half of 2006--getting up and down fora tying birdie would have been a gimme, but Woods's bunker shot ran across thegreen into the rough and he had to scramble for par. "I hit a nice bunkershot," Woods said, "but I could tell I caught a rock on mywedge."
Tiger used to makebirdies, not excuses.
On the 72nd hole hehad 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, whichskittered 30 feet above the hole. He played too much break on the putt, hisOpen dreams expiring a foot wide right. Afterward Woods was at a loss toexplain his inability to close the deal. "I certainly played well allweek," he said. "I just need to analyze it and see what went right andwhat went wrong."
For Cabrera theonly question was what he would drink out of his glittering trophy."Everything," predicted Manuel Tagle, his lifelong friend and now hisagent. "Beer, wine, his favorite Italian liqueur, Fernet Blanca. . . ."Cabrera would be toasting not only his first win in the U.S. but also the firstU.S. Open victory by a South American, exactly 40 years after anotherArgentine, Roberto De Vicenzo, beat Jack Nicklaus at the British Open. Cabreraand De Vicenzo will now forever be linked, just as Woods and Nicklaus havebecome inextricably intertwined.
With 12 majorchampionships already in the bank, Tiger is still a good bet to break theBear's alltime record of 18, but at this rate he might first get to Jack'sother 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 andfour seconds.
This Open letdowncalled to mind Woods's sloppy final round two months ago at the Masters, duringwhich he held a share of the lead on the front nine only to be undone by aseries of unforced errors. That performance came on the heels of a quarterfinalloss at the Match Play Championship, in which, for the first time, Woodsflat-out choked on a crucial putt, in this case a four-footer that would haveended his match against Nick O'Hern. Woods lost on the next hole and afterwardblamed the missed putt on a ball mark that he failed to see.
In the wake of theMatch Play and the Masters, the Tour's uppity truth-teller, Rory Sabbatini, hadsaid he liked the "new Tiger" because "he's more beatable now thanever." As is his wont, Woods subsequently gave Sabbatini a beatdown on thecourse and in the press, but that couldn't diminish the basic correctness ofSabbatini's assessment. There's no question that Woods still burns to win, andhe has not slacked off his punishing workouts on the practice tee or in thegym. But he is no longer a golfing automaton. He has a life. His wife, Elin, isdue with the couple's first child any day now. To make room for the baby, theWoodses are overseeing the construction of their dream house on a $44.5 millionspread on Jupiter Island, Fla. As part of his commitment to build more youthlearning centers, Woods has been busy organizing a new Tour event, the AT&TNational, which is to be played in two weeks in Washington, D.C., with theTiger Woods Foundation as the primary beneficiary. Then there's his burgeoningcourse-design business to worry about.
A palpable hungerto win has always defined Woods's career, but at Oakmont it was Cabrera who hadthe 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 theCordoba 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 caddieswere allowed to play. His natural talent was nurtured by Eduardo (El Gato)Romero, another Cordoba native. Romero, a longtime fixture in internationalgolf circles and now a force on the senior circuit, bankrolled his protégé in1995 while Cabrera was trying to launch his career on the European tour.
For most of the1990s Cabrera was considered an extremely talented underachiever, atitanium-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 wasplayed at Buenos Aires Country Club, with Cabrera and Romero representing thehost country and Woods and David Duval flying the Stars and Stripes. Tiger wasat the tail end of the greatest season in golf history, and his appearance wasbilled as the biggest thing to happen to South American sport--nonf√∫tboldivision--since Muhammad Ali fought a pair of exhibitions in Buenos Aires in1971. The Americans won the Cup, but Cabrera and Romero battled them to thefinal putt. "For my confidence it was a very big thing," Cabrerasays.
Not long after theWorld Cup, Cabrera won the 2001 Open de Argentina, his first victory in fiveyears. Two significant European tour victories followed, in addition to sixmore wins in South America. In 2005 Cabrera played in the Presidents Cup andwas one of the standouts for the International team, impressing teammates withhis 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 ofour matches he picked me up and nearly squeezed the life out of me."
Campbell stillwinces at the memory of the hug. "The guy's a bull," he says. "Hemight be the strongest man in golf. There's no rough he can't muscle the ballout of. That's a tremendous advantage around a course like this."
Last week Oakmontwas as big a story as any of the players. It is to the U.S. Open as St. Andrewsis to the British Open--embodying the very soul of the tournament. Oakmont hashosted more national championships than any other venue and boasts a roll callof Hall of Fame winners, including Tommy Armour (1927), Ben Hogan ('53),Nicklaus ('62), Johnny Miller ('73) and Larry Nelson ('83). The Oakmontmystique is jealously guarded by its members, who brag about the toughness oftheir course the same way that some men go on about their jacked-uppickups--perhaps to compensate for some other inadequacy.
So you can imaginethe panic among the membership when, the day before the start of the Open, theUSGA trimmed the rough for the second time in a week. Then that night nearlyhalf 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 thenrubbed it in afterward, saying, "I think the course is, I hate to say easy,but. . . ."
Even though 28players failed to make a birdie on Thursday--including Phil Mickelson, AdamScott, Henrik Stenson, Padraig Harrington, Sergio García, Zach Johnson, PaulCasey and K.J. Choi, all of whom are in the top 17 in the World Ranking--MickeyPohl, the tournament chairman, received more than two dozen e-mails overnightfrom fellow Oakmont members voicing displeasure that their course was notinducing enough suffering.
Before the secondround the greens were rolled and all the compassion squeezed out of Oakmont. Inhotter, breezier conditions there were only two rounds in the 60s--Casey's 66was the equivalent of a 58 at the Phoenix Open--and 35 in the 80s. Thanks to a71, Cabrera led at even par. Woods was in 13th place at five over. Asked if theUSGA was on the verge of losing the course, a la Shinnecock in 2004, Woodssaid, "It's close. It's right on the edge, I think."
Extensive wateringkept the putting surfaces playable for the weekend, and during the third roundWoods took advantage of the softer conditions, hitting 17 of 18 greens in abeautiful display of ball control. His 69 pushed him from 13th to second, twoback of callow Aussie Aaron Baddeley (who would never recover from an openingtriple bogey on Sunday).
On Saturday nightWoods's swing coach, Hank Haney, was asked where the third round ranked in thepantheon of Woods's ball-striking performances since the two began workingtogether in 2003. "The best," said Haney. "On the hardest course inthe world, when he absolutely had to have it? It's the best. It has tobe."
Yet there was alsothe sense that Woods had missed an opportunity to put a stranglehold on thetournament, as he repeatedly burned the edges of the cup en route to taking 35putts. "That was as good as golf can be played," Dougherty, Woods'splaying partner, said, "but if he had putted even halfway decent, therewould be a lot of daylight between Tiger and everybody else. Sixty-nine wasabsolutely the worst score he could have shot."
The same would besaid of Cabrera's final round. Though he looked jittery for a hole or two downthe stretch, he showed serious cojones on the 72nd tee, ripping the drive ofhis life, a rocket of some 350 yards right down the middle. After tidying upwith a deft two-putt Cabrera retired to the stifling locker room to await hisfate. (Oakmont members consider air conditioning to be for weenies.) He calledhis wife and two sons back in Argentina and madly scrolled through a series ofcongratulatory text messages.
As he paced amongthe lockers, Cabrera was making a concerted effort not to look at the many TVsin the room. Nervous? "What do you think?" he said in English, thoughthroughout the week he had relied on an interpreter for his interviews.("He speaks English better than he lets on," says Campbell, "and Iwish he'd always speak it so fans could get to know him. But he's not veryconfident with it in public settings.")
Cabrera finallysettled in front of a TV to see what Woods was made of, just as Johnson had atthe Masters. The stony silence was broken only when PGA Tour veteran JerryKelly barged in to give Cabrera an exuberant high five. "I love theguy," Kelly said. "We like to give each other forearm shivers every nowand then. For fun."
Back on the TV,Woods missed one final birdie putt, and just like that Cabrera had won the107th U.S. Open. Those close to Woods believe that his recent disappointmentsare an aberration, not the beginning of something larger. "He'll figure outwhatever it is that's going on, and he'll come back stronger fromthis--hungrier and more motivated," says Stuart Appleby, a friend andneighbor.
Whether Cabrera canbuild on his unexpected triumph is an intriguing question, but on Sunday he wascontent to bask in the moment. After sharing an ecstatic hug with Tagle and hiscaddie, Eddie Gardino, Cabrera was hustled out of the clubhouse for the trophyceremony on the 18th green. (The former Cordoba caddie also took possession ofa $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 sweepingview of this famous course. The grandstands surrounding the 18th green werestill packed, and the crowd erupted at the sight of the man who had vanquishedTiger. With a huge grin Cabrera took off his hat and waved it in the air. For aminute he looked a little like Eva Perón on the balcony of the Casa Rosada, butCabrera didn't make any speeches. He didn't have to. The revolution had alreadybeen televised.
Coming Up Aces
A gallery of top shots from last week's action atOakmont.
The powerful Cabrera showed off a short game that featured deft chipping andonly two three-putts.
Woods's best chance to force a playoff passed when he couldn't get up and downfrom the sand at the 17th.