- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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GULLANE, Scotland -- Tiger Woods heard the freight train roar from the 18th hole at Muirfield, the kind of Sunday roar he once inspired on muscle memory at the majors, and at that moment one of golf's all-time greats confronted these cold, hard truths:
He was not going to win the Open Championship.
His chief rival, Phil Mickelson, was sure going to take care of that.
In the not-too-distant past, Mickelson wasn't worthy of being called a credible rival of Tiger's, if only because nobody outside of Jack Nicklaus was worthy of the distinction. It was Tiger versus Jack, Jack versus Tiger, the game within a game so thoroughly dominated by Woods that some wondered if he'd win 25 majors, never mind the 19 required to break Jack's record.
But that Tiger Woods only exists these days within the boundaries of his own imagination. You heard it from him again at Muirfield, where Woods threw up a 74 on the board after Mickelson played the round of his life, a round the Scots will be talking about 50 years from now, and shot a 66 to do something Woods has never done -- come from behind on Sunday to win a big one.
"I'm very pleased with the way I'm playing, there's no doubt," Woods said after he started the day two strokes out of the lead and finished it five strokes out of the lead.
"I'm right there, and I hit a ton of good shots this week, and the only thing that I would look back on this week is I just never got the speed [of the greens] after the first day."
Five years and a month after he won his last major, Woods was throwing ice water on any notion that he's pressing in big-game situations, or that he's suddenly morphed into Greg Norman. He had his story and he was sticking to it, and that story was all about the greens and how they were lightning fast on Thursday, and slower than the Cross Bronx Expressway at rush hour on Sunday.
Basically, Woods was saying that he played great, and probably would've won the damn thing, or at least booked a date with Mickelson for an epic playoff, if only his putter got it going.
He sounded like a major league manager saying he'd have a World Series contender if he only had some pitching.
"Overall," Woods said, "I've been very positive about how I played this week."
And by the standards set by your garden variety tour pro, Woods would've had every right to be content with his game. He was coming off an elbow injury, a four-week layoff, and he was still very much in the tournament with nine holes to play. He'd already won four times on tour this year, including The Players Championship, and he likely would've won the Masters if a flagstick didn't cost him four strokes.
But Tiger Woods isn't your garden variety tour pro; he's one of the best athletes this country has ever produced. In fact, he established golfers as athletes forevermore. So his failure to deliver at the Open Championship doesn't match up with the failure of the major-free Lee Westwood, the doomed third-round leader who spent more time against the lips of Muirfield's bunkers than a 20-handicapper would.
Tiger thought he had this one, too, even from two back on the first tee. "He probably would've thought he was tied for the lead, and that's not a knock on Lee," said Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava. "He just hasn't been there. It's just a tough spot. There's a lot of pressure. You've got the weight of the world on your shoulders."
The same could be said of Woods, who is clearly feeling the burden of the drought whether he wants to admit it for public consumption or not. On the first hole, after analyzing a four-foot par putt from head to toe, Woods missed wide on a tentative delivery.
He kept coming up short on putts, lagging to the nth degree. Woods sure looked like he was playing not to lose early, something he rarely did before the sex scandal, the divorce, the general destruction of his carefully crafted image. Yeah, the greens were deceptive and bumpy.
But they were deceptive and bumpy for Mickelson, too. Asked about Phil's magical, mystery 66, a better final round than any of Tiger's 14 to close out majors, Woods said: "It's certainly gettable out there. … You can shoot between 3- and 5-under par today. But it's having the confidence to throw it far enough in there, because all week they've been bouncing over if you threw it that deep. Evidently he got a pretty good feel for it and made a few putts."
Evidently Woods didn't. In the good ol' days, Tiger would've been the one producing Mickelson's magic. Instead he lost the pairing to Adam Scott (and caddie Steve Williams, of all people), who shot 72, and advanced his alarming trend of miserable weekends in Grand Slam events. Woods is a combined 11-under in the first two rounds of the past six majors, and 23-over on Saturdays and Sundays. He's 0-for-17 overall in majors (he's missed four others to injury) since beating Rocco Mediate in their U.S. Open playoff in a different life.
"I've won 14, and in that spell where I haven't won since Torrey, I've been in there," Woods said. "It's not like I've lost my card and not playing out here."
It only feels that way.
"So I've won some tournaments in that stretch," Tiger continued, "and I've been in probably about half the majors on the back nine on Sunday with a chance to win during that stretch. I just haven't done it yet."
Truth is, a 37-year-old Woods still has time to pass Nicklaus, who won No. 18 at age 46. Mickelson, 43, is the third consecutive 40-something to win the Open Championship. Tom Watson was one par from the 72nd fairway at Turnberry from winning this tournament at 59.
Golf isn't a contact sport, or one that requires its players to run a 4.4 40-yard dash or maintain a 40-inch vertical leap. So if Woods can remain relatively healthy, he'll have his chances.
But there's no doubt his biggest challenge is mental now. Woods is surely doubting himself in the solitude of night, asking himself why he no longer has the resolve to get it to the house.
After he tied his worst final round at the Open as a pro, Woods was enough of a sympathetic figure for the caddie he'd fired, Williams, to give him a hearty handshake and a shoulder pat and a brief hang-in-there pep talk.
"He was saying it was a good fight out there today," Tiger explained.
A fight that left Woods on the canvas.
He woke up Sunday believing an even-par round and 1-under total might do the trick, and Mickelson came out of nowhere, from five strokes off Westwood's lead, to mock that projection. Standing in the 15th fairway, thinking par-birdie-eagle-birdie might yet steal the Open, Woods and LaCava heard the Mickelson roars from ahead. "And then we knew it was basically over," the caddie said.
Tiger said Mickelson's absurd 3-under score made him feel a bit better about the defeat, maintained again that he'd controlled his golf ball all week, and then headed for the Muirfield exits with his girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn, by his side.
Woods and Vonn slipped into the backseat of a waiting black Mercedes, and then they were gone. The old Tiger would've left with his fourth Claret Jug, too, because the old Tiger would've figured out the greens, adjusted to the water thrown down on the course and learned a few lessons from the muttering pros he watched coming up short on TV on Sunday morning.
But that old Tiger was mentally stronger than the new Tiger, who had better toughen up if he ever wants to get to 15 and beyond.
Tiger Woods' mind used to be as strong as his game. Now it's an obstacle.