- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa. — El Pato was magnifico.

Argentina’s Angel Cabrera shocked the golf establishment yesterday in the finale of the U.S. Open, beating back challenges from world No. 1 Tiger Woods and world No. 3 Jim Furyk to become the first South American player to win a major since countryman Roberto de Vicenzo won the 1967 British Open.

“I watched all the majors on TV when I was a kid, and I never thought I was going to be here,” the 37-year-old Cabrera said after recording his second 69 of the week to clip Woods and Furyk by one stroke with a 5-over 285. “This trophy is my baby. It’s going to sleep with me tonight. … It is very difficult to describe this moment, but probably when I wake up tomorrow with this trophy beside me in bed, I will realize I have won the U.S. Open.”

Frankly, Cabrera seemed as surprised as everyone else about what transpired at Oakmont yesterday afternoon.

Sure, the personable Argentine known as El Pato (the Duck) — in part because of his shambling, open-footed gait — has long been a European Tour regular and fixture in the top 100 of the world rankings. And, sure, he had compiled a career resume that included six top-10 finishes in the majors.

But never before had the prodigious hitter from Cordoba actually stood in the crucible on a Slam Sunday. His only modest brush with previous major fame came at the 1999 British Open, where he finished one stroke out of the fateful Carnoustie playoff featuring Jean Van de Velde, Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard.

In fact, upon his arrival at Oakmont, Cabrera had a somewhat brief but seemingly lackluster dossier.

To the positive, Cabrera might be the longest hitter on the planet, and he’s certainly the straightest of the game’s elite bombers, a group headlined by fellow Oakmont contenders Woods and Bubba Watson (289). He did nothing to tarnish that reputation this week on the sprawling 7,230-yard, par-70 beast northeast of Pittsburgh. He finished second at the Open in driving distance (310.9 yards) and had the temerity to attack with his driver while many in the field backed away from the big stick for fear of Oakmont’s diabolical rough.

But on the negative side of the ledger, Cabrera also brought some considerable baggage with him to the Open. His sparse collection of three European Tour victories in more than a decade could have been a case study in underachievement given his obvious talents. To some degree, the reason for that modest tally is a historically balky putter, not exactly the Achilles of choice on a course widely considered to have the nastiest set of greens on the planet.

But yesterday, with the whole world watching and two of the game’s three best players breathing down his neck, Cabrera beat back his professional demons. Sure, he bogeyed the 16th and 17th to fall from 3 over to 5 over and let Woods and Furyk back into the tournament. But with immortality on the line and a pair of massive heavyweights stalking several pairings in his wake, Cabrera stepped onto the toughest hole at Oakmont last week and piped a 346-yard drive up the left side of the fairway. He then hit a savvy, safe wedge to the back tier of the green and beautifully negotiated a ticklish 30-foot two putt, lagging his birdie bid to within six inches to leave himself a stress-free par putt and force Woods and Furyk to come get him.

Angel played a beautiful round of golf,” said Woods, who followed a day of brilliant ball-striking and sporadic putting with the exact opposite performance during a closing 72. “He went out there and put all the pressure on Jim and I, and we fell one shot short.”

Furyk failed first. Playing one group behind Cabrera, the 2003 U.S. Open champion surged into a tie with the Argentine at 5 over through 16 with clutch birdie salvos at the 13th, 14th and 15th. But the man who grew up as a Steelers fan midway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh perhaps pushed a bit too hard to win the title he covets most in front of an adoring home crowd.

Spurning his customary steady, patient style of play, Furyk elected to hit driver instead of an iron off the tee at the reachable 306-yard, par-4 17th. He tugged the drive slightly into some of the layout’s heaviest rough left of the green, gouged out short, pitched to 12 feet and lipped out for a title-dooming bogey.

Woods was at 6 over and still had three holes remaining when Cabrera posted at 285 and retired to a nearby TV with a nervous grin and his ever-handy pack of Marlboros. The 12-time major champion wasn’t pounding fairways and greens as he did Saturday. And he already had hit perhaps the worst three-shot series in his major career earlier in the day when he carded a double-bogey on the relatively straightforward third via an airmailed approach from just 160 yards, followed by a skulled pitch and a flubbed chip.

But just as he always seems to do even when he brings his C-game to a Slam Sunday, Woods posted enough gutsy midrange par saves to arrive at the 16th tee with a chance to win.

For the second consecutive time down the stretch at a major, it simply wasn’t meant to be for Woods.

The 31-year-old titan came up dreadfully short at the par-3 16th, scrambling for par. Following Furyk’s bold stratagem at the 17th, he hit a 3-wood into the right greenside bunker and couldn’t stop the resulting splash shot en route to another par. And after a decent drive at the last kicked into nasty position up against the primary cut of rough, one last approach with a pitching wedge kicked 30 feet past the pin, yielding a nasty, breaking putt that never threatened the cup.

“I felt like I played really well all week,” said Woods, who still has not won a major when trailing heading into Sunday’s play. “Finishing second is never fun. You play so hard, and it’s just disappointing. … I’m going to have to analyze what went right and what went wrong and adjust accordingly going forward.”

And Cabrera is going to have to adjust to the life of an unlikely, though eminently deserving, major champion.



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