Woods painfully close to 15th major win

This one will really sting.

Tiger Woods has now thrown away chances to win five of the past six majors, the latest coming Sunday after a disastrous closing 4-over-par 75 at the 110th United States Open.

Players succumb in the cauldron that is Sunday afternoon at the U.S. Open, for that has long been the nature of this beast. But not Woods. He has always been immune.

But he’s immune no longer.

“Not a whole lot,” a forlorn Woods responded when asked what positives he’d take away from his tie for fourth.

Even with all that he has been through since Thanksgiving, Woods is still the world’s best golfer, still trying to become the game’s greatest player and fourth-place checks for $303,119 still don‘t float his boat.

Coming off a third-round 66 that seemed like it had revived the Tiger within, Woods was looking to shoot under par Sunday.

In the end, he needed only to shoot even par to win a 15th major and his second Open at Pebble Beach.

“Our game plan was just if we shot under par for the day we would probably win,” he said. “The golf course was playing too hard, too fast, and it can get away from you pretty quickly out there.”

It certainly got away from him. And early.

As he had in each round, Woods floundered on the easiest stretch at Pebble Beach, starting with a three-putt bogey on the opening hole.

To me, the mental errors were even more disturbing than the bad swings and poor putts. Mentally, I’ve never known a stronger, more resolute athlete than Woods. But maybe that’s the price he’s having to pay for the upheaval in his life.

A price he’s paying in bogeys.

The out-of-sync Woods hit a snap-hook three wood into the weeds on the third hole, but saved par with a long putt.

In the past, he would’ve ridden the momentum of that save, but Sunday he made a woeful pass at an iron off the fourth tee that led to a bogey on a good birdie chance on a short par 4.

The mistake that really hurt, though, came on the par-5 sixth. Woods hit a three wood off the tee that ran off the cliffs. His finished with bogey on a hole that gave up 38 birdies and four eagles on Sunday.

“It should’ve been a two iron down there,” he said. “We made three mental mistakes today [that] cost us the chance to win the U.S. Open.”

In that, Woods was not alone.

Ernie Els was so disgusted with his final-round 73 that he stormed off the 18th green, speaking to no one. The South African knew he had his chance to win a third Open, 13 years after his last one.

Els got to 3-under for the tournament until a bogey on the ninth and a delirious double bogey on the 10th, where he hit into the right-side hazard twice.

But he still had a chance until making bogey on the exacting par-3 17th — by far the hardest hole on the course — and then failing to make a 5-footer for birdie on the last.

Phil Mickelson had circled this tournament long ago as he sought to finally break through at his national Open. But he could only muster a 73, too, shooting 39 on the back nine after losing control of his swing.

Mickelson made birdie on the opening hole, missed good chances at 2 and 3, then drove the fourth only to three-putt for par from 15 feet.

“That was frustrating,” Mickelson said later. “I have a five iron into (the par-5 sixth), and I make par. That was frustrating. But at the turn, I was still under for my round, even par for the tournament. All I had to do was shoot even par on the back, and I’m in a playoff. I wasn’t able to do it, obviously. It was tough.”

Mickelson was on the verge of being critical of the set-up at Pebble Beach — as was Woods on Thursday — but thought better of it.

“It just doesn’t sound good,” he said, ever the diplomat.

One man who wasn’t complaining — privately or publicly — was the U.S. Open champion, the fiesty Irishman Graeme McDowell.

McDowell held his nerve to secure a popular victory. His 74 was the highest winning score by a champion at this event in a quarter century.

McDowell held off little-known Frenchman Gregory Havret, who showed up Woods, shooting 72 playing alongside the world No. 1 to finish runner-up.

“I holed a 50-footer (in Europe) to qualify, and all of a sudden I’m playing Sunday with Tiger,” he said. “I had a great time. I played everything I had. It’s a shame I came (up) one short.”

When Havret missed a 6-foot birdie putt, McDowell put away his long iron on the last and hit nine iron, then sand wedge and calmly two-putted for the first victory by a European at the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970.

“I dreamed of this all my life,” said McDowell, who was embraced by his father on the green. “Two putts to win the U.S. Open.”

It may have been almost 3 a.m. in Northern Ireland, but McDowell said with some confidence that “there’ll be a few pints of Guinness going down now.”

Some of them perhaps to drown the sorrows of third-round leader Dustin Johnson.

Johnson set the record no one expected Sunday, shooting 82 to become the highest score by a third-round leader at a U.S. Open since 1911.

Not unexpectedly after embarrassing himself on the national stage, he didn’t want to talk about his round afterward.

What, after all, could he say?