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U.S. OPEN | Thomas Bonk | ON GOLF

Cabrera part of an identity crisis

June 18, 2007|Thomas Bonk

OAKMONT, PA. — As it turns out, Phil Mickelson was right after all. When Mickelson shot a four-over-par 74 in Thursday's first round of the U.S. Open, he said, what the heck, he was still below what the winning score was going to be.

Angel Cabrera grinned at the cheering fans at Oakmont Country Club, raised his fist in salute, waved his cap, and hugged the U.S. Open trophy Sunday evening, a chain of events that leaves a single intriguing question.

Angel Cabrera?

Hey, why not? After four days and 72 holes of angst and anger, rough you could bale, shrunken fairways and impenetrable greens, that's your U.S. Open champion. Whom did you expect, Tiger Woods?

If so, there's a learning curve you need some catching up on.

It has been said for decades that if the U.S. Open works, then it's supposed to identify the best player in the world.

The last three years, it has identified Michael Campbell, Geoff Ogilvy and now Cabrera.

Now, there's nothing wrong with any of these players, except they're not anywhere close to being the best player in the world.

Campbell won at Pinehurst when closest challengers Jason Gore and Retief Goosen were a combined 24 over par on the last day.

Ogilvy won at Winged Foot when Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie made double bogey on the 72nd hole and Jim Furyk and Padraig Harrington made bogeys. And Woods, the best player in the world, missed the cut.

Cabrera won at Oakmont even though he bogeyed two of the last three holes, because Woods had only one birdie over his final 32 holes.

As for the previous Open champions, Oakmont proved to be an extremely rude host. Ogilvy was 19 over par, and Campbell was 24 over.

Somewhere along the way, the venerable layout, the scene of eight historic U.S. Opens and renowned for a power table of winners, might have lost a little bit of its luster. The list includes Armour, Snead, Hogan, Nicklaus, Miller, to name a few, and now Cabrera. Are we sure it's a proper fit?

Next June at Torrey Pines, Woods will be working on a six-year streak since his last U.S. Open title. Mickelson has none, in 17 tries. Yes, Cabrera has more U.S. Open titles than Mickelson.

Maybe that's just the way it is, and even the way it should be. After all, Cabrera didn't do anything wrong, he earned his championship, the only player in the field who had two rounds under par, his opening 69 and his closing 69.

But something just seemed wrong. A total of eight scores under par for four days? Only six players shooting better than 10 over par? A course so brutally difficult that even par doesn't even get a sniff?

That's a fine, old Tudor-style clubhouse at Oakmont, but if the Open ever comes back, it's going to need some remodeling to add a couple of padded rooms.

Woods sounded relieved it wasn't any worse than it was.

"The USGA did not set up the pins brutally like they did at Pinehurst," he said. "Here they were just brutal. They gave us a chance to play here, and we still shot five over. So that shows you how difficult this golf course is."

Woods wasn't complaining, but many players were. The Open doesn't seem to be many players' favorite tournament.

At the end of the day, it's getting harder and harder to distinguish the significance of the U.S. Open, certainly if you go by judging the relevance of its recent champions. We've traveled this road before, of course, when Jack Fleck won in 1955 or when Orville Moody won in 1969 or Lou Graham in 1975.

These days, more and more, the extreme difficulty of the courses is the dominant factor of the U.S. Open -- not the players.

And in the meantime, while everyone waits for somebody to come along to stand up to Woods, it's not clear where that player is going to emerge. Does anyone really believe that Cabrera is now challenging Woods?

That line of characters is starting to look a little ragged, while Luke Donald or Sergio Garcia or Adam Scott or Paul Casey or Bubba Watson keep trying to get their acts together on golf's major stages.

Meanwhile, we have Cabrera, a chain-smoking, easygoing, power-hitting Argentine and the first South American to win the U.S. Open. Congratulations are in order. Enjoy your victory, Angel, because you deserve it. But when you have a minute, you can thank Oakmont too. You just got identified.

thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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