PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – You could almost see tendrils of smoke coming out Ernie Els’ ears as he marched out of the scoring trailer and through assembled media at the end of Sunday’s U.S. Open.
Witnesses testifying against the mob don’t make more determined exits from courthouses.
“He wants [a major championship] really badly,” said Chubby Chandler, his agent. “That’s his 31st top 10 in a major. Pretty amazing.”
And immensely aggravating.
Tiger Woods stopped to face the inquisition in the media bullpen behind the 18th green at Pebble Beach, but there was frustration of his own. Woods recounted bad decisions at the sixth, 10th and 12th holes that he believes cost him a chance to win his 15th major championship.
“You take away those three mental errors, and I’m right there, I’m tied for the lead,” Woods said.
Phil Mickelson staggered away lamenting his chance to win his first U.S. Open.
“Obviously, I wanted to win,” Mickelson said. “I had opportunities.”
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell winning the U.S. Open to become the first European to win the title in 40 years wasn’t the stunning upset here on the craggy shores of Carmel Bay. It was that three of the titans of this era failed to capitalize on terrific opportunities.
McDowell finished a shot ahead of France’s Gregory Havret to win.
History will note that the three most decorated players of this era kept backing up when circumstances begged them to step forward.
Els finished third two shots back with Mickelson and Woods tied for fourth three back.
If you wondered if all those twentysomethings winning is a sign that a new era is dawning, this U.S. Open adds to your suspicions.
Without Woods at his best, the game seems as wide open as this U.S. Open was going to the back nine.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re entering an exciting new era of golf.
If the back nine is where the Masters begins, it’s where the U.S. Open ends, at least at Pebble Beach on this gray and dreary ending.
McDowell didn’t win this title so much as everyone else lost it.
Apologies to McDowell, because that’s immensely unfair to him, but that’s how this crazy Sunday felt with so many of the game’s best players squandering chances.
There was a terrific moment at the fourth tee box early in the day.
That’s where Woods set up to play under the large leaderboard there. It’s where he first got to see that Dustin Johnson was falling apart and turning this championship into a free-for-all.
With Johnson making triple bogey behind him, Woods could see he was now within three shots of the lead. So were Els and Mickelson.
Pebble Beach crackled with spectacular possibilities, but that’s what made this finish so unsatisfying.
The disappointment wasn’t in seeing McDowell win. It was in seeing three players as gifted as Woods, Mickelson and Els fail to challenge him. The three of them combined to make two birdies on the back nine.
Mickelson birdied the first hole, but he seemed to lose momentum failing to capitalize after smashing his tee shot to the fringe of the fourth green, a 325-yard par 4. He three putted for par.
“That was frustrating,” Mickelson said.
Almost as frustrating as failing to make a single birdie on the back nine.
“All I had to do was shoot even par in the back, and I'm in a playoff,” Mickelson said.
Woods was paired with Havret, where we saw the strongest evidence yet that Woods no longer intimidates opponents. Havret schooled Woods on the front nine, playing precision and almost error-free golf, making the turn in 1 under for the day. Woods bogeyed four of his first eight holes.
“This course baits you into being aggressive,” Woods said.
Woods took the bait too often. His swing was too loose under Sunday pressure.
Els’ putting continues to be a problem under pressure. His stroke’s tentative and short and unreliable and that doesn’t bode well for his dream of adding to his two U.S. Open titles and British Open title.
Was the setup too difficult? Tom Watson said it was difficult but fair.
Even McDowell was surprised he wasn’t pushed by this era’s proven stars.
“I was surprised that Gregory Havret was the guy closest to me,” McDowell said. “No disrespect to Gregory, he's a great player, but when you have Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els obviously there, you're not expecting Gregory Havret to be the guy you've got to fend off.”
That pretty much summed up this Sunday at Pebble Beach.