Carnoustie forever will be The One That Got Away for a handful of pro golfers, including Tiger Woods.
It was stunning how many players were within a stroke or two of the lead deep into the closing nine last week, which made for a thrilling British Open. Francesco Molinari won this Open – no question – after going bogey-free all weekend, but most of his pursuers went home feeling as if it had been their Open for the taking.
It wasn’t. They beat themselves, mostly with the help of Carnoustie. Even Woods, who has been on a feel-good tour all year talking about how grateful he is to have the chance to compete again after his dismal back problems. The man who once famously said that “second place sucks” is not the kind of golfer who believes in moral victories. Finishing sixth after where he’s been certainly would qualify. But I don’t believe Woods, the competitor, will buy that. He had the lead on the back nine of a major championship, then threw a double bogey and a bogey in there to take himself out of the running.
He played nearly well enough to snag major championship No. 15, but this result falls into the category of Could Have Won. I don’t think you can say this was a Should Have Won for Woods. There were too many other players near the top, and Molinari and Xander Schauffele played too well. Woods could have won it, yes, but anyone who claims that Woods should have won at Carnoustie wasn’t paying attention in the final round.
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Tiger Woods let a potential major title slip away last week at Carnoustie, but the 14-time major champion has had even closer calls over the years.
Don’t make the same mistake next week when the PGA Tour returns to Firestone for the Bridgestone Invitational, which Woods has won eight times, or the PGA Championship the following week at Bellerive in St. Louis. Woods showed that he’s got enough game to win again, even at a major championship.
The odd thing about Woods is that he hasn’t had the number of near-misses and close calls in majors as Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson have compiled. By my count, Carnoustie is the 11th major title that Woods could have won. There’s a big difference between could have and should have. I’ve got Woods’ should-have-won total at seven.
Nicklaus won 18 majors and finished runner-up 19 times. Woods claims six runner-up finishes, four thirds and six fourths. Nicklaus could have won as many as 35 majors, but given his status as the game’s best, he should have won 28.
Mickelson won five majors and finished runner-up 11 times, famously with six second places in the U.S. Open. He could have won nine more majors, I believe. When it comes to should have won, I’m pretty conservative. I think Mickelson should have won four more. I’ll bet he would say that he should have won all nine. Like Woods, Mickelson is a competitor, too.
Here’s my list of majors that got away from Woods, starting with the Should Haves:
2009 PGA Championship, Hazeltine: Woods led after 54 holes and didn’t win, the only time that ever happened in a major championship. Little-known Y.E. Yang outplayed Woods on the weekend. Woods shot a dismal closing 75 thanks to some back-nine gaffes around the greens, to lose by three. The big error may have come in the third round, a day of good scoring, when Woods played unusually conservative golf while Yang shot 67 and erased half of Woods’ four-shot lead.
1999 U.S. Open, Pinehurst: With apologies to the late Payne Stewart, Woods should’ve had this one. He hit wedge over the green three times in the final round and lost three birdie opportunities. Woods still had a shot after a big birdie putt at 16, but his par putt lipped out at 17, where Stewart hit it close and made birdie. Woods finished two back.
2002 PGA Championship, Hazeltine: Rich Beem was the original Tiger-killer at Hazeltine. The roar when Beem eagled the 11th hole made Woods back off his birdie putt at the 13th, then he three-putted from 12 feet and bogeyed the next hole, too. Woods finished with four straight birdies, but it wasn’t enough to run down Beem, who didn’t wilt and made an unlikely 30-footer at 16 to build a cushion.
2005 U.S. Open, Pinehurst: Woods began the final round six shots off the lead but started bogey-bogey. He made four birdies on the back nine but finished two shots behind Michael Campbell. Where could Woods have picked up two shots? He missed an 8-foot par putt at the 16th and three-putted 17, epitomizing a poor putting week.
2007 U.S. Open, Oakmont: This Open began to slip away when Woods chipped across the third green and made a double bogey. He still had a chance if he could get at least one more birdie coming in, but he parred the last seven holes and posted 72, coming up one shot shy of winner Angel Cabrera. Woods didn’t have a realistic birdie look on the last three holes and actually sank nice par-saving putts at 16 and 17.
2003 British Open, Royal St. George’s: You can’t lose the Open on the first hole, but Woods gave it a try. His opening tee shot vanished into the thick right rough and wasn’t found. That led to a triple bogey. He made two eagles on Saturday’s front nine, though, and briefly took the lead. He shot 3 over on the back, however. His chances Sunday faded when he bogeyed two of the last four, including a botched up-and-down from in front of the 17th green. He finished two shots behind surprise champ Ben Curtis.
2010 U.S. Open Pebble Beach: A final-round score of even-par 72 would’ve gotten Woods into a playoff with eventual winner Graeme McDowell. However, Woods bogeyed six of the opening 12 holes and posted 75. He three-putted the first green and blocked a 3-wood tee shot onto the cliff right of the sixth fairway, one of Pebble Beach’s widest landing areas. The final insult, months after his sex scandal began to unfold, was the plane that flew over the course Sunday pulling a banner that read, “Tiger, are you my Daddy?”
And now for the Could Haves:
2007 Masters, Augusta National: Woods finished bogey-bogey in the first and third rounds, four shots that he could’ve used later. In the final round, he broke his 4-iron while hitting a dangerous shot from behind a tree at the 11th hole en route to an amazing par. He eagled 13 but hit into the water at 15 and finished two strokes behind Zach Johnson, who closed with 69.
2012 British Open, Royal Lytham & St. Annes: Woods tripled the sixth hole from a greenside pot bunker in the final round, but by the time he birdied the 12th, he tied Ernie Els for second, three shots behind Adam Scott. Els wound up winning when Scott bogeyed the final four. Woods stumbled late, too, with bogeys at 13, 14 and 15.
2018 British Open, Carnoustie: It was electrifying when Woods shot 2 under on the front and made the turn with the solo lead Sunday afternoon. He came unglued at the 11th, however, when his approach shot from thick fescue got yanked way left, hit a fan and kicked toward the green, a good break. His flop shot came up short and rolled back, then his putt raced past the cup and he missed his bogey putt. He added another bogey from the rough and coming in, couldn’t hit it close enough to get the birdie he needed to reach 6 under, which appeared to have a chance for a playoff – but didn’t turn out that way. Sixth place? Woods would’ve taken that in a heartbeat a year ago. Sunday, it probably stung.
2011 Masters: You might remember this Masters as the one in which a young Rory McIlroy held the 54-hole lead, then had a meltdown on the 10th hole and didn’t break 80. Charl Schwartzel won a wild finish with four straight birdies, but Woods was right there, too. Woods went birdie-birdie-eagle starting at the sixth and shot 31 on the front. After that eagle, which featured a classic Woods fist-pump, there was little doubt among the masses that he was going to roar back and win. At one point, he tied for the lead. He three-putted the 12th, however; didn’t birdie the 13th from just over the green; missed a makeable birdie putt at 14; then had a 6-footer for eagle at 15 that he missed. He shot 5-under 67, and that wasn’t enough. He finished fourth.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle