The magic of Woods has pulled vanishing act

U.s. Open

June 18, 2007|By RICK MAESE

OAKMONT, Pa. -- When it was all over, Tiger Woods stood next to the new U.S. Open champion and tried to smile. You didn't have to read his mind because everyone shared the same thought, whether you watched from the stands or from your couch.

Tiger just lost the U.S. Open to this guy?

It's true, Angel Cabrera - Argentina's John Daly - took the trophy home, beating the world's No. 1 golfer by a single stroke at Oakmont Country Club. And for the second straight year, the most interesting thing about the U.S. Open was not who won, but who lost.

Used to be that Sunday was a holy day, reserved in many places for God and for Tiger Woods. It wasn't long ago that if Woods had a piece of the lead on a Sunday, he'd clamp down like a dog on a bone. We miss that Tiger, a folk hero for the country club set who pumped his fist, who made impossible shots and sank unsinkable putts. That Tiger was one of the best who ever wrapped his fingers around a golf club.

This Tiger - second-place Tiger - looks so out of place standing next to Cabrera. Just as Cabrera looks out of place standing next to Tiger.

Physically, Woods still looks like a superhero, with added muscle mass and tight-fitting clothes. Cabrera's clothes fit snugly, too, but not because he's buying the wrong sizes; more likely, his nutritionist has a batch of McDonald's coupons.

Cabrera's formal education stopped in grade school and he worked as a caddie to help support his family. It took him four tries to even earn his card on the European Tour. His back story is as un-Tiger as anything you'll find on the golf course. The scorecard read like this - PGA Tour wins for Tiger 57; and for Cabrera, 0.

Cabrera is animated on the course and makes sure his caddie knows what's essential on the pre-round checklist: a pack of smokes. In an average round, Cabrera goes through nearly a dozen cigarettes. "There are some players who have psychologists, sportologists," Cabrera said. "I smoke."

Yep, Tiger lost to this guy.

Woods needed just one birdie over his last three holes yesterday to tie the Argentine and force a Monday playoff. There was a time when Cabrera would've walked off the 18th green and that one-shot lead would've been as safe as a bunny at a shooting range. You could've turned off the TV. The question wasn't whether Woods would win, but by how much.

Sure, he won two straight majors before losing the Masters and the U.S. Open, but something is suddenly missing. That otherworldly greatness, that indescribable invincibility that separated him from the rest of field, it's faded. He gave away these past two majors to a pair of golfers - Cabrera and Zach Johnson - who skillwise had no business even mowing Woods' lawn just a few years ago.

Now, Tiger stands next to them, watches them smile, hoist a trophy and thank their families. I lost to this guy?

This isn't intended to completely diminish Cabrera's accomplishment - he's the only golfer in the field who broke par twice. Cabrera hit some great shots and some huge drives on a course that's less forgiving than a traffic cop. For him, the day wasn't about simply fending off the world's No. 1 golfer. "No, no, I beat everybody," Cabrera said. "Not only him."

Woods beat almost everybody. But that's not good enough. "Finishing second is never fun," he said.

And it's not fun for the rest of us either. The Tiger lore was special because on Sundays, he seemed to have a special gear. Remember in 2000? At Pebble Beach? Woods finished that U.S. Open 15 strokes ahead of everyone else and didn't post worse than par over the final 26 holes.

Yesterday at Oakmont, Woods managed just one birdie all day (in fact, in his final 32 holes of the tournament, he had just one). Woods has never won a major when trailing heading into the final round, a dubious distinction for which there's little explanation.

"I haven't gotten it done," is all he can offer.

You wish Woods did have some answers because the questions are piling up. The buzz topic of the week was how tough the Oakmont course played, and for any other golfer, that's reason enough to justify a lousy score. But Woods never needed excuses. He never had to blame the course or the pins or the rough, because not only was he whipping the field, but also was carving up the world's best courses like a Thanksgiving turkey.

There was no green too fast, no fairway too narrow. The old Tiger always seemed to find a way - not just because he was better than everyone else, but because he wanted it more than everyone else.

Woods still has the talent, but that intangible greatness has inexplicably faded. He loses the Masters now to a kid from Iowa, the U.S. Open to a former caddie from Argentina. He stands next to these guys and watches them kiss what should be his trophy. And he must be thinking the same thing the rest of us are: When will we see the old Tiger again?

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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