PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – In each of the five previous majors staged at Pebble Beach Golf Links (four U.S. Opens and the 1977 PGA Championship), the “chalk” has ruled. The roll call of champions has featured the best of the best: Nicklaus, Watson, Kite and Woods in the U.S. Open, Wadkins in the PGA. Taking the liberty to spot Woods the needed votes in 2016, when he becomes eligible, those are Hall of Famers all.
When 54-hole leader Dustin Johnson stumbled early in his round Sunday at the 110th U.S. Open, going triple bogey-double bogey on holes 2-3, four future Hall of Famers – golf’s version of Mount Rushmore – had new life. The all-star cast: Davis Love III, who was playing well ahead of the leaders and making a move; Tiger Woods, who seemingly had regained his swagger with a third-round 66; Ernie Els, a man with a hot hand in 2010 and two U.S. Open trophies already on the mantel; and Masters champion Phil Mickelson, still seeking his first Open title to offset a record five runner-up finishes.
“It was a wide-open tournament,” Mickelson said. “Many guys had a chance. And it made for an exciting U.S. Open, I thought.”
But it would be Graeme McDowell, who’d never before won in the U.S., who would hoist the champion’s trophy. On a brutally tough, chilly and windswept Sunday on the Monterey Peninsula, Pebble’s Big Four, try as they might, simply could not get the job done.
Mickelson birdied the first hole, but squandered early chances at Nos. 4 and 6. He drove the par-4 fourth hole with a 3-metal, then proceeded to three-putt from the back fringe from 15 feet. Two holes later, at the par-5 sixth, he had 5-iron into the green and walked away with a par.
“That,” he said, “was frustrating. “But at the turn, I was still under for my round, even par for the tournament, which was ultimately the winning score. All I had to do was shoot even par in the back and I’m in a playoff.”
Instead, Mickelson shot 39 and tied for fourth. He now has seven top-4 finishes at the U.S. Open. In his bookend rounds at Pebble Beach, he made one birdie in 36 holes.
Els’ chances blew up when he went bogey-double along the cliffs at 9 and 10, slipping from 3 under to even; Love, who went out in 32, needed a birdie at the last to return in 39 and tumbled to T-6; Woods never quite got anything going. He made six bogeys in his first 12 holes and never was a factor.
Woods, who tied for fourth (as he did at Augusta earlier this season), said he simply made too many mental errors to give himself a legitimate chance Sunday. That included hitting 3-metal off the tee at the par-5 sixth, a shot that ran off hard and fast into the right-side hazard, leading to bogey on one of Pebble’s easier holes.
Woods had started the final round with a glimmer of hope, five behind Johnson. He now is 0-for-43 when trailing after 54 holes of a major. Woods’ final-round 75 also tied his second-highest final round as a pro, eclipsed only by a 76 he shot at Shinnecock in the final round of the 2004 U.S. Open. A decade after shooting 272 and winning by 15, Woods shot 287 and lost by three.
Nonetheless, Woods said he continues to see improvements and make progress with his game.
“I feel like I put some pieces together this week,” he said. “It’s a process. 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 (73) was solo third, his best finish at a major since the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills. But he didn’t leave satisfied.
On Saturday evening, following a third-round 72, Els had commiserated that he’d not holed any putts the entire week – “I’d like to have a better touch on the greens,” he said – and that did not change on Sunday, when he had several key misses that halted his momentum. He finished his round and was clearly frustrated, blowing past the media without speaking.
Among Pebble’s Big Four on Sunday, he would not be the only one leaving town empty-handed.