Championship starting to feel un-American

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OAKMONT, Pa. — Phil Mickelson was wrong about a couple of things at this year’s U.S. Open. He was wrong — painfully wrong, missed-the-cut wrong — to try to play ultratough Oakmont with a bum left wrist. And he was wrong — rose-colored-glasses wrong (or maybe Nostradamus wrong) — in predicting that his 7-over opening round was “still below the winning score.”

We’ll give Lefty a mulligan on the second one, though, because, really, who could have seen Angel Cabrera and his 5-over 285 coming? It wasn’t just that Cabrera, pride of Cordoba, Argentina, had never finished higher than fourth in a PGA Tour event. It was that he played the crusty old course so masterfully, shooting two of the eight sub-par rounds posted all week — a 69 Thursday and another 69 yesterday, with all the cameras trained on him.

Two years after Michael Campbell pulled away from Tiger Woods at Pinehurst, Cabrera stared down Tiger — and Jim Furyk, another former Open winner — at Oakmont. It doesn’t get any better than that, certainly not for a late-to-the-dance 37-year-old who didn’t take up golf until he was 15.

We’ll get up-close-and-personal with Angel a little later, though. Right now, we have to indulge in some armchair psychoanalysis. In particular, we have to ask: What does all this mean for Tiger and U.S. golf?

This is the fourth straight time our Open trophy has been handed to a foreigner — Retief Goosen in ‘04, Campbell in ‘05, Geoff Ogilvy last year at Winged Foot and now Cabrera. Are our golfers losing their ability to win under the most difficult of conditions? Are they becoming a bunch of pantywaists?

After all, there haven’t been four straight American winners in more than a decade, since the reign of Hale Irwin, Payne Stewart, Tom Kite and Lee Janzen from 1990 to ‘93. That was actually the end of a long period of U.S. dominance, a stretch in which our players captured 22 of 23 Opens. Half of the Opens since, though, have been won by guys with tourist visas, including two each by South Africans Ernie Els and Goosen.

Perhaps the U.S. Open has just ceased to be American. The Land of Plenty of Birdies may not produce the kind of grinders, the kind of survivors who win Opens — or at least not enough of them. Woods, of course, is the ultimate grinder, and Furyk isn’t half-bad himself, but where is our Angel Cabrera, our Michael Campbell? Heck, Mickelson hasn’t even won an Open yet.

Try as he might, Woods couldn’t make anything happen yesterday. When he started out he was two strokes behind Aaron Baddeley, and though he was tied for first several times on the front nine, he never had the lead outright. He just couldn’t come up with the tide-turning shot — the iron to kick-in distance, the chip-in from the fringe, bomb from the other side of the side of the green.

His last birdie was at the par-5 fourth. After that … 13 pars and one bogey, which left him with a 2-over 72 and a 286 total — one short. It was the same story Saturday. He had one of the greatest tee-to-green rounds of his career, but he couldn’t make a birdie after the fourth hole and had to settle for a 69. All told, the Greatest Player on the Planet had only eight birdies for the week.

“I hit so many good golf shots that ended up 10, 12 feet away,” he said — shots that left him with putts that “had two, three feet of break. And [often] I was below the hole! I just had to be real defensive … and hope I could get it to drop.” It rarely did.

Still, it’s hard to see his T-2 in the Open, coupled with a similar near-miss in the Masters, as some kind of catastrophe for Woods. Let’s not forget, his idol, Jack Nicklaus, had years like this, too. In 1964, the Golden Bear finished second in three of the four majors (and tied for 23rd in the other). In ‘77, he had two seconds and a third in the Slams (along with a T-10). Mere bumps in the road, as it turned out. It likely will be the same for Tiger.

As for Cabrera, who came to Oakmont ranked 41st in the world, nothing will be the same for him, not after this. He’s an old-style golfer, one who sneaks cigarettes while strolling up the fairway. His husky build (6 feet, 210) also suggests he hasn’t spent much time in the fitness trailer. But he has won 15 tournaments around the globe, and that clearly has taught him something about playing under pressure.

Granted, Cabrera made things interesting with back-to-back bogeys at 16 and 17 that dropped him briefly into a tie with Furyk. But then Jim butchered 17 himself, and Cabrera finessed the final hole like a champion. Pretty impressive, especially because he had never been in such a situation before.

And where exactly did this calm come from? “I’ve had a lot of bad moments in my life,” he said through an interpreter. “So I’ve tried to take this [golf] more easily.”

There’s nothing easy about the U.S. Open, particularly at Oakmont, but Angel Cabrera persevered. Watching the Masters on television as kid, he said, he never could have imagined he’d win a tournament so prestigious. Indeed, an hour after Woods‘ last-chance birdie putt avoided the 18th hole, it still didn’t seem all that real to him.

“Perhaps when I wake up tomorrow morning with the trophy in my bed,” he said, “I’ll realize I’ve won the U.S. Open.”

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