PINEHURST, N.C. – Tiger Woods looked like a beaten man as he stood behind the 18th green, gently rubbing his knuckles over his upper lip as he gazed back at the 16th and 17th holes, a 200-yard area of Pinehurst No. 2 that cost him a chance to win the U.S. Open.
Off to his right was the bronze statue of Payne Stewart, striking the winning pose from six years ago.
Woods always has said he was thrilled that Stewart made a 15-foot par putt on the final hole to win the 1999 U.S. Open at 1 under par. He said it helped him sleep better knowing that Stewart finished two shots ahead of him, and that the par putt Woods missed on the 17th hole that year ultimately didn’t matter.
This time, it did.
Michael Campbell won the U.S. Open by two strokes, with clutch shots down the stretch and a little help from Woods.
The guy who has built a mystique by making pressure putts blinked twice in two holes late Sunday afternoon, missing an 8-foot par on the 16th and three-putting for bogey on the 17th, missing from 6 feet.
Eight shots behind after two holes, Woods found little consolation from this close call at Pinehurst.
“Depends on how you get there, you know?” he said. “If you come out of nowhere to get second, then yeah. But if you feel you had a chance to win and you didn’t take that opportunity to win the tournament, then it’s disappointing. The two seconds that I’ve had … the PGA at Hazeltine and now here … I did not get it done.”
Campbell showed him how to do it.
The 36-year-old from New Zealand dropped only two shots on the back nine, both times when it didn’t matter.
One of them came on the 16th, after Woods had bogeyed to four shots behind. The other came on the 18th hole, when he could have three-putted from 3 feet and still won.
In between was a collection of shots that define U.S. Open champions.
With not much green to work with on the 11th, Campbell blasted out to 6 feet and holed the par putt with authority. He did the same on the par-3 15th, having to hit out of a bunker with the ball close to a steep knoll. It came out perfectly, as did the 6-foot putt he made.
And the final blow, an 8-iron into 20 feet, was as pure as it gets.
“He brought his game starting with the first swing,” said Olin Browne, who played with Campbell and shot 80. “He recovered when he needed to recover. He executed when he needed to execute. He didn’t make any stupid mistakes. And he played smart when he had to play smart.”
The only thing Campbell didn’t beat was par – that meaningless bogey on the last hole gave him a 69 to finish at even-par 280, the first time a U.S. Open champion didn’t break par since Lee Janzen at Olympic Club in 1998.
Next up is the British Open at St. Andrews, which appeals to Campbell and Woods for different reasons.
Campbell no longer goes back to the Old Course thinking about an opportunity that didn’t come along for another 10 years. His shot from the Road Hole bunker on the 17th skipped up the sodded bank to within inches to save par, and he had the 54-hole lead. Then he shot 76 in the final round to miss by one shot the playoff won by John Daly.
“It’s just been an interesting journey the last 10 years,” Campbell said. “Leading the Open championship back in ‘95 and having a chance to win a major championship, it wasn’t my time to win. But today was.”
Now he goes to St. Andrews as the U.S. Open champion, one who didn’t slide through the back door. Under the pressure of a final round, with cheers rocking around him every time Woods made a birdie, Campbell played with poise and confidence to become the first sectional qualifier since Steve Jones in 1996 at Oakland Hills.
He also joined Bob Charles as the only Kiwis with a major.
“Deep down inside, I knew that I had something special in me to do something special,” he said.
Woods goes back to St. Andrews with memories of his overwhelming victory five years ago, when he failed to hit into a single bunker, broke the major championship record by finishing 19 under par and won by eight strokes.
But he also brings some baggage.
There already were questions about his game even after he won the Masters, where he had a two-shot lead until making ugly bogeys on the final two holes to fall into a playoff with Chris DiMarco.
He couldn’t get away with making two bogeys down the stretch at Pinehurst No. 2.
“I felt like if I could get to even par and post that number, then I was looking pretty good, at least getting into a playoff,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for me. I didn’t feel comfortable with my putter all week.”
Campbell, who nearly quit the game seven years ago when a wrist injury led to shattered confidence, finally has his first major championship and wonders where it will lead next.
“He was down in the doldrums there and worked his way out of it,” Woods said. “And now he’s one of the best.”
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