TULSA, Okla., June 17 - So this is what life is like without Tiger Woods. This is what happens when you remove the pumping fist, the red shirts and records, the steely resolve.
YOU GET PHIL Mickelson, the No. 2 ranked player in the world, missing putts like Ryan Leaf missing wide-open receivers. You get David Duval, the No. 2-ranked player in the Nike stable, scraping his way home with 74 strokes. You get Sergio Garcia, “the rival,” the sheriff of Sherwood, back-flipping to the clubhouse with a 77. You get Paul Azinger backing up with a final-round 71 and Davis Love III standing still with a par-70. You get a bunch of players in their prime getting their butts kicked by 51-year old Tom Kite.
You get a U.S. Open that looks like a Deutsche Bank Classic, a competition among players you never heard of or thought you might never hear from again, a result that will be remembered for its awkwardness instead of its power and beauty. You get Mark Brooks, Retief Goosen and Stewart Cink three-putting the 72nd hole to upchuck the championship and create a playoff on Monday. You get Goosen against Mark Brooks, who is ranked 195th in the world rankings, which is considerably more than he weighs.
“I was sick to my stomach to see them both do that,” Rocco Mediate said of the final pair meltdown. “It’s almost not fair.”
Some things became abundantly clear on the bending fairways, titled greens and choke-filled locker rooms of Southern Hills Country Club this week. The obvious is that Woods is not above the law of averages. Four majors in a row does not necessarily beget a fifth. If Woods is, as his father suggested, the equal of Nelson Mandela, he is not the equal of Perry Maxwell and his classic 66-year old golf course.
But something even more profound developed on sadistic Sunday. It has become disturbingly clear how Woods has been able to win 20 of his last 41 starts, win four majors in succession and take over the world.
He has no competition, at least not when it comes to winning these events.
When Woods is removed from the equation, golf is left with a group of jumpy craftsman who don’t know how to finish their product. In baseball terms, we have some quality starters, effective middle men, but no closers. The top eight names on the board to start the final day at Southern Hills shot 22-over par.
On a day of 64s for Kite — a major championship winner past his prime shot a 64 — and Vijay Singh — a multiple major championship who got started late — the players in contention fell on each other like passengers leaving the deck of the Titanic.
“It was shocking,” said Brooks, the only contender who was able to shoot par. “I’ve been around this game a long time, not as long as Mr. Kite … or some of the other guys, but we’ve all witnessed some pretty phenomenal stuff.”
And yet, some seem to never learn. Some keep dribbling when they should be driving, keep taking when they should be swinging away, keep living down to their advanced billing.
“I don’t know what I learned today,” said Mickelson, who ran his major winless streak to 36. “I didn’t have the same feeling that I did the first three rounds, where I felt that I could get to this golf course.”
Instead, the golf course got to Mickelson, got to Duval got to Garcia. Mickelson missed six greens on Sunday and failed to save par on five. Garcia was even worse, missing seven greens and failing to save par six times. As for Duval, he missed nine greens, and only twice was he coming out of the rough.
The golf course slapped down those very players who are most recognized as Tiger antagonists, the players who NBC, CBS and every other network profiles during every big event, the players who we figured might “finally get a major” with Woods out of the picture.
Fat chance. One by one, they missed greens, missed putts and missed their opportunity. This was Jack Nicholson trying to find his way out of the maze, this was the Jamaican bobsled team going for the gold, this was worthy of windmills and free games.
“It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in watching sports,” said Azinger.
He was referring to the scene on the 18th green, but he might have been taking a more panoramic view. If the USGA was really looking after golf, it would grant Woods a special exemption and make him part of the playoff.
Barring that, Brooks and Goosen will do battle and, eventually, one of them will win this U.S. Open on Monday, or Tuesday … hopefully before the week is out.
“It’s just a great break for me,” said Brooks, who has the 1996 PGA Championship to his credit. We’ll see how it pans out.”
Look for Brooks, who will not be seeing two-foot putts in his sleep, to take advantage. And hope that all of these wounded warriors build on this experience and find the fortitude to win with authority. If they don’t, we’ll all be humming a Chad & Jeremy tune:
“Please lock me away, and don’t allow the day, here inside where I hide … I don’t care what they say I can’t stay in a world without Woods.”
Dan O’Neill covers golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and is a frequent contributor to NBCSports.com.
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