By Tim Dahlberg
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The leader was imploding just behind him, and a nobody was playing alongside him. It seemed the perfect time for Tiger Woods to step up and finally answer at least some of the questions about him.
Not the one posed by the banner drawn by a plane overhead. It got a cheap laugh from the gallery but the joke was a tired one, even on Father’s Day.
“Tiger, are you my daddy?” it read.
A better question might have been posed a few hours later.
“Tiger, why can’t you finish the job on Sunday anymore?”
The answer was probably out there somewhere on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, where Graeme McDowell played the kind of solid Sunday golf Woods used to be known for to win the U.S. Open. Try as we might, though, it was hard to pinpoint one good reason why the greatest closer in the game can’t seem to close the show these days.
Yes, his putting was bad. Yes, his iron shots weren’t terribly accurate.
But all he needed to do was shoot even par to win his 15th major championship. And he couldn’t even come close.
The old Tiger would have wrapped this one up before he even got to the 18th hole. He and caddie Steve Williams could have had a few laughs walking down the final fairway talking about what a dummy Dustin Johnson is.
The new Tiger was out of contention by the time he reached the iconic final hole. Even then he couldn’t find the fairway off the tee.
The record will show he tied Phil Mickelson for fourth place, certainly a respectable showing by most standards. But Tiger Woods was never one to be measured by most standards, especially on a course where he won the Open by an incredible 15 shots a decade before.
Maybe it’s time to do some new measuring.
There were hints even before the sex scandal that sent him into hiding and then into rehab that there were cracks in the Woods’ facade. They were readily apparent when Woods lost a final round lead for the first time in a major and was beaten by Y.E. Yang for the PGA Championship.
Call that one a fluke, if you will. But now Woods has lost three majors in a row that he had a chance to win on Sunday, and he seems as perplexed as anyone about the reasons why.
Father’s Day without a family to celebrate with? Who knows.
Inability to focus when it matters most because his mind is still on other things? Possibly.
Maybe, though, it’s as simple as this: Woods can’t find the killer instinct he once carried around the course with a swagger. He’s lost the edge that always allowed him to pour in putts seemingly at will when he needed them the most.
The old Tiger wouldn’t have left a 30-footer eight feet short on the first hole, then miss the next one to get off to a stumbling start. The old Tiger would have gotten up-and-down on the par 3 12th when he so desperately needed it, and would have holed a birdie putt or two on the back nine when the tournament still was there for the taking.
The old Tiger would have made this a contest early, and made it his Open late.
Woods himself didn’t offer much insight before gassing up the private jet and getting out of town.
“I feel like I can play now,” he said. “I’ve got a feel for my game, my shape of my shots, what I’m working on.”
What had to be especially frustrating to the greatest player of his era was that this Open was there for the taking. Johnson threw away a three-shot lead and his chances with some early blunders, Mickelson couldn’t get anything going, and Ernie Els was consistently inconsistent.
That left McDowell and Woods’ playing partner, Gregory Havret of France, to dispose of. Woods didn’t come close, following Saturday’s sterling 66 with a bloated 75 that seemed preordained the minute he three-putted the first green.
Woods, of course, wasn’t the only one who had issues with a course that finally bared its teeth on Sunday. Mickelson shot a 73 just when it seemed the perfect time for him to capitalize on his Masters win and pass Woods to become the No. 1 player in golf.
And Els blew his chance to become a part of a new Big Three by taking his third Open title — and first in 13 years.
But golf has revolved around what Woods does for more than a decade now, and his failings are the ones that are always magnified. That’s especially true when he has been stuck on 14 major titles for two years and may now have trouble breaking the record of 18 set by Jack Nicklaus that most people figured was a lock.
On this day, though, the fist pumps that offered such hope a day before were a mere memory. The focused scowl was replaced by a perplexed gaze.
Another major championship. Another final round failing.
Outplayed by a Frenchman, of all things.
Tiger Woods in a red shirt on Sunday used to mean something special.
Somehow it just doesn’t anymore.