OAKMONT, Pa. — Jack Nicklaus figures at least one of his major championship records is safe.Tiger Woods left Oakmont having squandered another chance to win a major while playing in the last group, unable to make but one birdie in the final round of the U.S. Open despite having a short iron for his approach to the green on a half-dozen occasions. The next opportunity will be at Carnoustie for the British Open, where he is the two-time defending champion. It will be his first major as a father. His wife gave birth to a girl Monday. Nicklaus had his first child when he was an amateur, so he won all 18 majors with children. “I think that (record) is probably in pretty good shape,” Nicklaus said earlier this year. The magic number has always been 18 for Woods, who effectively launched his assault on the Nicklaus benchmark when he won four straight majors ending with the 2001 Masters, giving him six at age 25, and he hasn’t hit too many dry spells since then. This is not one of them. Sunday at Oakmont was his fourth straight major in the final group, an incredible statistic that gets forgotten because the U.S. Open was his second straight major as a runner-up. Almost as impressive as the 18 majors for Nicklaus are the 19 times he finished second.
Is it possible Woods can reach that record before the other?
It seems preposterous now, because Woods has 12 trophies and only four consolation prizes. What the last year has shown, however, is that winning starts with putting yourself in position, and no one has done that better, not even close.
“My last four majors,” Woods said, ticking off his record, “1, 1, 2, 2. Not terrible, but it could have been a little better.”
In an age of instant gratification, it can be difficult to see the big picture.
What made Nicklaus such a dominant force in the majors was that he was usually around the top of the leaderboard on the final round, finishing second by making a mistake (’63 British Open), getting outplayed (Lee Trevino, Tom Watson), or simply having too much ground to make up in the final round (’64 Masters).
During a quarter-century of contending in majors, he has experienced just about everything.
And maybe that’s what awaits Woods.
The shocker was not that he missed the cut at Winged Foot last year for the first time in a major, but that it took 10 years for it to happen. Woods is 12-0 in the majors with at least a share of the 54-hole lead; one of these times, he won’t win.
It happened to Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, even Ben Hogan.
There have been 29 majors when Woods trailed going into the final round, and he still hasn’t won from behind.
“I haven’t gotten it done,” he said. “Put myself there, and haven’t gotten it done.”
That will change, too.
What separates Woods from everyone else in the game is the number of times he gives himself a chance, and those are starting to pile up in alarming fashion. In the last 10 majors, Woods has been atop the leaderboard or within two shots seven times.
He has lost the last two majors to guys who hardly fit the profile of Tiger slayers. One was Zach Johnson at the Masters, who made all the birdie putts that Woods didn’t. The other was Angel Cabrera at Oakmont, who hit all the iron shots that turned out badly for Woods.
Cabrera, playing four groups ahead of Woods, was in the fairway on the par-4 11th and stuffed his shot into 2 feet for birdie. Woods was in the bunker and fanned a shot that found the bunker, leading to his only bogey on the back nine.
From the first cut of rough on the 15th, Cabrera cut a shot toward the flag that stopped 3 feet behind the flag for a birdie that ultimately was the difference. Woods had a similar lie and put it over the flag, into a shaggy collar around the green, and he had to make an 8-foot par putt just to stay in the game.
Even without trophies, Woods hasn’t lost his mystique.
He had to hole a shot from the 18th fairway at Augusta National to force a playoff with Johnson, and the normal guy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, started having abnormal thoughts watching from the locker room.
“Before he hit it, I’m like, ‘He’s done stranger things,’” Johnson said. “The guy is a phenom.”
Woods only needed a single birdie over his final three holes at Oakmont to force a playoff, and as Cabrera watched from the clubhouse, he was making plans for one more round of Oakmont in a playoff.
But it didn’t happen.
Woods did well to two-putt for par on the 244-yard 16th hole. His best chance came at the 17th, a par 4 where the tee box was moved to the front and hole played 306 yards. Woods chose 3-wood and found the right bunker, where it looked as though he would at least give himself a decent look at birdie. He said the ball caught a tiny rock in the bunker, taking off just enough spin that it rolled past the flag, down the bank and off the green.
Even as Woods faced a tricky lie between the first cut of rough and the deeper stuff along the 18th fairway, he had only a wedge in his hand. Cabrera was asked if he thought Woods would make birdie, and his answer needed no interpretation.”
“Si,” the 37-year-old Argentine said.
“Tiger can birdie any hole. He’s the No. 1,” Cabrera later said through a translator.
But not at this major. And not at the last major.
“Finishing second is never fun,” Woods said.
But it’s not all bad, either. And over the course of his career, it’s bound to happen more often.
Tiger may be failing, but he’s hardly flailing