The Associated Press
OAKMONT, Pa. (AP) — The bargain is rarely this simple.
Make birdie at either No. 17 or 18 and force a playoff.
Birdie them both and the U.S. Open trophy rides home in the back seat of the car that carried Tiger Woods out onto Hulton Road late Sunday afternoon and away from Oakmont Country Club.
No matter what club he’s holding, once he settles over a shot, there’s nobody in the game you would rather put money on. Yet just like the final round at the Masters two months ago, where he played in the final pairing and held his fate in his hands, Woods was flat out of magic.
And like Augusta, too, where winner Zach Johnson finished before Woods did and wouldn’t take his eyes off a locker room TV to be sure there were no more miracles, about-to-be-crowned U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera sat glued in front of a television set in the clubhouse.
Woods’ final stab at a tie was a triple-breaking 30-footer above the flag with 8 feet of break to the cup.
“It’s not like I could hit it inside right, firm,” Woods said, the hint of a smile playing on his lips. “It was a putt I had to die, and if it gets anywhere below the hole it could run off the ridge.”
It was never close. Instead, he tapped in for a 2-over-par 72, a 286 total and a tie for second with Jim Furyk.
In the last four majors, Woods has gone 1-1-2-2, a remarkable run for anyone else. But alongside the dozen majors that make up the most glittering resume in pro golf are now 30 in which Woods has failed to win coming from off the pace. Asked whether it was fair to hold that against him, he blinked.
“Well,” he said simply. “I haven’t.
“I haven’t gotten it done. Put myself there,” Woods added, his voice lowering, “and haven’t gotten it done.”
It’s easy in hindsight to pick a half dozen shots that would have made the difference. Woods said he wouldn’t go there, either — at least not anytime soon.
“I felt like I hit the ball pretty good all week,” he said, and the numbers backed him up.
Woods led the field in greens in regulation, practically staging a clinic Saturday by hitting every one of the first 17 en route to a 69 that left him trailing third-round leader Aaron Baddeley by two and sent a chill down the collective spine of the rest of the field.
After just one hole Sunday, it was apparent why. Woods made a nonchalant par and Baddeley made triple bogey. Right about then, a sense of deja vu enveloped everyone out on the course — save Tiger himself.
“Just because Badds made 7 on the first hole, we still have 17 more to go,” he said. “It’s not like they’re handing out the trophy on the first green.”
What Woods knew then was something the numbers would reveal afterward as well. Though he three-putted only once, Woods still ended up ranked 41st on the greens. The crispness with which he was striking the ball, Woods knew, was matched by how uneasy he felt all weekend standing over putts on Oakmont’s slick surfaces.
A questioner hadn’t even finished asking “Are these the hardest ...” before Woods cut him off.
“Without a doubt,” he replied. “You say Augusta is hard, yeah, but they have flat spots where they put the pins.
“The putts I had that I knew I could make — left-to-right, right-to-left, uphill — I powered them in there,” Woods said. “But I had so many breaking putts that it was hard to keep my speed and line, and I kept worrying about my pace and make sure I didn’t have a second putt.”
True as that was, the explanation was also a bit too neat.
At No. 3, Woods bladed a chip shot from behind the green, chunked the one after that and made 6, his only double bogey of the tournament. At No. 13, he missed a 6-footer for birdie, one of the rare times Woods hasn’t holed a putt he absolutely had to have. At No. 14, pumped up and hitting wedge, he flew the flag and had to settle for the fourth of eight straight closing pars.
The shot that stuck most vividly in his memory, though, was a bunker shot at 17. When he dug his feet into the sand, he was 6 over and Cabrera was in the clubhouse one stroke better.
“I hit a nice bunker shot, too,” Woods recalled, “but unfortunately when I hit it, I could tell it caught a rock on my wedge. And I heard a ‘cling,’ you know? And when it came out, I was hoping, ‘Please, still have the spin on it that I felt.’
“But it didn’t,” he added. “It released on through.”
Woods made just three birdies in the final two rounds, just one in the last 32 holes. Not even Tiger Woods can always fly past the obstacles that trip up the rest of us, find the missing piece of the puzzle or simply forge a new one. Sometimes life is just that hard.
So welcome to our world, Tiger, if only for one day.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.