GULLANE, Scotland — Tiger Woods kept staring incredulously at the ball – when it veered off in odd directions, when it stopped rolling far from the cup.
It was as though Woods had suddenly forgotten how to read a putt.
Woods’ latest chance to end the longest drought of his career slipped away Sunday at the British Open, where Phil Mickelson won the claret jug with one of the greatest closing rounds in major championship history.
For Woods, it was another mystifying showing by a guy who used to produce that sort of magic fairly regularly. He once was considered a lock to break Jack Nicklaus’ record in golf’s biggest events, yet the number of titles remains stuck at 14 – four shy of the Golden Bear and right where it’s been since Woods’ last significant triumph at the 2008 U.S. Open.
He started the day just two strokes behind 54-hole leader Lee Westwood, but it fell apart pretty quickly. An ugly three-putt at No. 1 was the start of his misery, and Woods was at 3 over for the round by the time he walked off the sixth green.
Though he remained on the fringe of contention all day, he never got to the top of the board.
Instead, it was Mickelson surging into contention and then running away with the title, posting a 5-under 66 that matched the lowest round of the week and carried him to a three-stroke win.
Woods staggered to the finish with a 74, five shots in arrears of the winner.
It didn’t even seem that close, thanks to a dismal performance with the putter. Woods needed 33 swipes with the short stick to get around the course. Only six of the 84 players used it more.
“I had a hard time adjusting to the speeds,” Woods said. “They were much slower today, much softer. I don’t think I got too many putts to the hole.”
Even so, he didn’t sound all that impressed with Mickelson’s round, which matched the best score of the week and left him as the only player to break par overall.
While everyone else gushed over Lefty making four birdies in the last six holes, Woods said: “It’s certainly gettable out there. The greens are slower, and, if you have the feel to hit it far enough up there into the greens, you can get it done. You can shoot between 3 and 5 under par.”
As for Mickelson, he added, “Evidently he got a pretty good feel for it and made a few putts.”
Woods seems to have made up with Steve Williams, the longtime caddie he dumped a few years ago in a bitter split. Williams now works for Adam Scott, Woods’ playing partner Sunday. When it was over, the Woods and Williams shook hands on the green, with Woods even giving him a little pat on the shoulder.
Woods played with Lee Westwood the day before, and it was actually late in their back-and-forth duel that the fade began. They were tied for the lead going to the 17th hole, with Woods poised to hold at least a share of it going to the final round of a major for the first time since the 2009 PGA Championship.
But he knocked his second shot in a fairway bunker and took bogey, while Westwood rolled in a birdie to take a two-shot lead. That was the deficit when Woods teed off in the next-to-last group.
He never got any closer.
“It was frustrating,” Woods said. “I played well. I could just never get the speed right today. We started on the first day and it progressively got slower. That’s usually the opposite at most tournaments. It usually gets faster as the week goes on, but this week was different. I had a couple of opportunities to make a couple of putts and I left them short.”