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U.S. OPEN | Bill Plaschke

It's a rare day for Woods when he can't say `No sweat'

June 18, 2007|Bill Plaschke

OAKMONT, PA. — The voice cut suddenly and deeply into the thick late afternoon air, momentarily puncturing the buzz of helicopters and clicking of cameras, a human cry of pain.

"Dammit, Tiger. Dammit, Tiger."

The voice belonged to someone angrily yelling and gesturing at Tiger Woods, but it was not a heckler, and it was not his caddie.

It was Tiger Woods.

There was sweat trickling down his face. There were veins popping in his neck. When he removed his black cap, his eyes looked heavy, and his expression seemed confused.

There was a golf ball in the sand trap, and it belonged to him.

There was a birdie to be found, but he didn't know where.

There was a U.S. Open to be won, but he couldn't figure out how.

"It's hard," Woods said later. "Really hard."

Hard for him to play, and harder for us to watch, this owner of a dozen major golf championships failing to win one that he held by the scruff of its rough-choked neck.

On a Sunday when America's golf championship was won by an Angel, the world's greatest golfer was most striking in his mortality.

He yelled at himself. He debated with his caddie. He covered his head in a towel. He smacked his clubs on the ground.

And, against all reasonable expectations, he blew it.

With 16 holes remaining in the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club on Sunday, Woods was tied for the lead. With 11 holes remaining, he was tied for the lead again.

He was striding down the fairway with fists clenched and glare set. A couple of holes ahead of him, Angel Cabrera was twirling his putter and picking his nose.

Woods was inspiring the crowd, Cabrera was humoring it.

Woods was the main act, Cabrera was the warmup, the thousands of sunburned fans understanding that in the end, Tiger would come down the 18th fairway and reclaim the room.

Then came the beached second shot on the 11th hole, the one that had Woods cursing himself down the fairway, the one that led to a bogey that took him out of the lead.

"Tough stance, I hit a terrible golf shot," he said.

Then came the four-foot missed birdie putt on the 13th hole, one that left him hunched over as if he had just been shot. He was so mad, when he tried to casually grab his ball out of the hole, he dropped it.

"An easy putt," he said. "I hit it a touch too hard."

Then came the final four holes, a birdie on any of them giving him a tie with Cabrera, leading to an 18-hole playoff today that Woods surely would have dominated.

Woods lingered longer than usual over his putts. Woods shouted louder than normal at his ball. Woods even once jumped around on his left leg, using body English on an errant drive.

None of it worked.

Four holes, and no birdie, and not for lack of effort, particularly on the 313-yard, par-four 17th hole, when he tried to knock his tee shot onto the green.

He landed in a sand trap that was taller than he was. Then he hit a sand shot that caught a rock.

"I heard a 'cling,' you know?" he said.

We know. We heard. It was as if the entire aura that is Tiger Woods was beset with a "cling," an off-key note that momentarily ruined what has become golf's greatest symphony.

Even when Woods thought he had caught Cabrera, he hadn't. After delivering a nice second shot to the 18th green, he high-fived his caddie Steve Williams in celebration.

But once he arrived at the ball, he saw three things. All of them breaks. All of them in different directions.

"Right to left, left to right and then right to left again," he said.

All directions leading to Angel Cabrera, the guy nicknamed "Duck" with the waddling swing and the perfect shrug.

"They need to make birdie," a smiling Cabrera said of runners-up Woods and Jim Furyk. "They didn't make birdie."

That last 25-foot putt ran high, and Woods collapsed over his putter again, finishing at six over par, tied with Furyk, one stroke behind Cabrera.

The Argentine took the giant silver cup, and Woods was left to face the theories.

On the verge of becoming a father for the first time, is he becoming increasingly distracted?

On the verge of breaking out of his colorful tight shirts, is he becoming too muscular?

Or is it because he just hasn't learned the art of the last-minute comeback, being 0 for 29 in major tournaments that he has not led entering the final day?

Woods will take heat for that last statistic, and he accepts it.

When asked about failing to come back, he said, "I haven't. I haven't gotten it done. I put myself there and haven't gotten it done. That's one of the things I need to go back and analyze."

Or how about this?

Maybe, just maybe, Woods was simply being human.

Maybe, on another scorching Sunday with the golf world again breathing down his shirt, Woods was just reminding everyone that it's not that easy.

Maybe the surprising part shouldn't be that he didn't win, but that he has already won so much.

In a strange way, in showing his humanity, maybe Woods

also showed some of his greatness.

"Finishing second is never fun," he said with a frown, and how many guys have ever walked away from an ugly skin rash of a golf tournament saying that?

Early Sunday, the USGA confirmed, a bear and her cub had wandered out of the nearby woods and were hanging around the seventh hole.

They disappeared before the players arrived, but, in a sense, maybe they didn't.

Maybe the spirit of that other bear, Jack Nicklaus, remained. It is, after all, Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships that Woods most covets.

For several years, Nicklaus has been saying it's not that easy.

After a day when that bear watched a Tiger fail to catch a Duck, maybe now we'll all listen.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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