PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – They go on a first-name basis: Tiger, Phil and Ernie.
On Sunday, they all went home empty.
When the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach was over, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els could all say they had their chances. None, however, could convert, which is how a little-known European named Graeme McDowell found himself holding the trophy.
That’s three players with 20 majors between them, and none could figure out a way to make it 21.
Els, playing some of the best golf of his life of late, got tantalizingly close to his first major championship since the 2002 British Open, but went bogey-double-bogey on Nos. 9 and 10 to throw away his chance. He finished third, two shots out of the lead.
Mickelson, the Masters winner searching for the second leg of the Grand Slam, made birdie with a putt from off the green on No. 1, but didn’t make another one the rest of the day. He tied for fourth with Woods, who, like Mickelson, shot a 66 earlier in the tournament to put himself in position to win.
“I thought when I made that putt on the first hole, it was going to be a great day,” said Mickelson, who found the greens getting bumpier and more unpredictable as he worked his way around on a cool, breezy day at Pebble.
As did Woods.
“Every putt I missed was from above the hole,” he said. “Yesterday I made everything because it was all below the hole. These greens are bumpy enough where putts above the holes, it’s just pot luck.”
While Woods found himself on the wrong side of the hole for most of the day, Mickelson and Els each watched their title hopes slip away on the so-called “Cliffs of Doom” – the stretch of holes 8, 9 and 10 that run along the Monterey Peninsula. They are as beautiful and treacherous as they come.
Els was at 3-under par, tied with McDowell for the lead, when he came up short on his approach on No. 9, then chipped up short, as well, and needed two putts to get down. Bogey.
Then, the real killer: a tee shot that went off the course, over the edge, almost certainly matted in the thick grass that leads down to the beach. It’s the Pacific Ocean – the biggest water hazard in the world – and Els had the common sense to ask a rules official if he would be penalized for touching the ground as he picked his way down the hill, trying to keep his balance.
No problem there. But he never found his ball. And when he came back onto terra firma to drop, he chunked it, hit that ball into the tall grass, as well, and was lucky to make a 6 from there.
A decent save for most – just not when you’re trying to win the U.S. Open.
Meanwhile, it was down below near that same water two days earlier that beachgoers wrote “Go Phil!” in the sand. A great scene, and fitting on Friday, when Mickelson was figuring out his putter, going low, shooting his 66.
It turned him into a favorite heading into the weekend. But Saturday, he was teetering precariously on the same hill after an awful approach on No. 9 – Lefty forced to turn his club around and hit righty. He made a double-bogey there that marked the official end of his hot streak.
Mickelson spent all day Sunday playing catch-up, a reality captured best when, trailing McDowell by three with three holes left, he went pin hunting on No. 16 and left the ball buried in the deep rough, en route to a bogey.
“I took a chance, it didn’t pay off,” he told his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay.
No way to argue with that one.
Had any of these Big 3 won, it would have made for a great story.
Woods, of course, is returning from an embarrassing winter of discontent, his personal life turning him into the butt of jokes, his invincibility being questioned more than ever. He enjoyed nine holes of good golf – the back nine on Saturday – but couldn’t keep it going Sunday.
“It’s a process,” Woods said, after adding this tie for fourth to the same result at the Masters. “It’s a long process, but I’ve put some of it together, and I hit some shots this week that I haven’t hit in a long time.”
Els is on a resurgence of late, 10 years after all but waving the white flag when Woods beat him by 15 shots on this same course at the U.S. Open. It was embarrassing, he admitted, and Woods, he said, wasn’t playing the same game as everyone else. That’s not true anymore, though Els, who played the final 10 holes in 5-over par, didn’t stick around long enough after Sunday’s round to discuss it.
Then there was Mickelson. Few will soon forget the tear that trickled down his face after his win at the Masters earlier this year – a poignant celebration with his wife, Amy, who is overcoming breast cancer and was in Augusta to celebrate the moment. A win at Pebble Beach would have given Mickelson the second leg of the Grand Slam, vaulted him past Woods to No. 1 in the world rankings and given him his first U.S. Open after a record five second-place finishes.
Instead, he finished fourth and was trying to see the glass as half full.
“For me, yeah, I wanted to win,” he said. “But I’m glad that it wasn’t a second.”