Woods loses by two after putter evades him

PINEHURST, N.C. -- If he is prone to do so, if there is time for reflection, if he chooses to lament his loss Sunday at the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods will look at the one area of his game that has always been so flawless on the big stage.

Putting, especially clutch putting, has been a huge factor in Woods winning nine major championships.

Somewhere on the way to Pinehurst, Woods' putter left him. And it ended up costing him another major win.

Sure, nobody expected Woods to win when the final round began. He was six strokes back of a seemingly unbeatable Retief Goosen. He had never won any of his majors coming from behind. And Pinehurst was certainly not ripe for a run.

And yet there was Woods, one stroke out of the lead after a birdie at the 11th hole. Campbell helped shut the door by one-putting 10 times Sunday, but Woods will bemoan his missed opportunities, the two late bogeys and, ultimately, a second runner-up finish in a major championship.

"I didn't feel comfortable with my putter all week," he said. "It was frustrating because I could never get the speed right. If you can't get the speed right, you can't get the line right. I struggled with that all week."

Woods needed just 28 putts on Sunday, but his three-putt at the 17th hole was a killer.

He tried to force in his 25-foot birdie putt, and ran it a bit too far past the hole. When he missed that, a considerable amount of heat was taken off Campbell, who had not won in two years and who undoubtedly would have been gasping for air trying to play the 17th and 18th hole needing pars.

For the tournament, Woods had 15 more putts than Campbell. He had 100 putts through three rounds and was surpassed in futility only by Vijay Singh.

Amazingly, while Woods struggled on the greens, he was stellar just about everywhere else. Although he didn't hit nearly the number of fairways he would like, Woods still hit 12 greens in regulation on Sunday and 54 for the tournament. He led the field.

"He struck the ball great," said Woods' instructor, Hank Haney, who has worked with him for more than a year. "I'm sure he's disappointed. He really, really hit the ball great. But that's only one part of it. Just to have a chance at the end when he was last in the field in putting going into the final round ... that's unheard of. The guy is just amazing. He never, ever quits."

A cynic will point out that Woods, the ultimate money player of our generation, has not been so automatic in the clutch in recent times.

With The Masters all but wrapped up, Woods bogeyed the 17th and 18th holes to fall into a playoff with Chris DiMarco. Of course, Woods hit three beautiful shots to win in sudden death at Augusta.

And Sunday, with the chance to step on Campbell's neck, Woods made bogeys at the 16th and 17th holes. Yes, they were sandwiched by birdies at the 15th and 18th. But those bogeys at such a crucial time will always make you wonder.

"Yeah, because I had a chance where it looked like I probably shouldn't have had a chance," Woods said. "And after that start, bogey-bogey, I'm sure most people wrote me off ... I put it together a little bit, and all of sudden I was at even par and if I could somehow post even par, I might be able to sneak into a playoff."

Woods seemed inclined to write off his putting woes as one of those things. He putted fine at the Memorial, he said. It wasn't mechanical, more a function of struggling with speed and lines. And he should get that worked out by the British Open at St. Andrews, where he won by eight strokes five years ago.

And given the fact that he led the field in greens in regulation, Woods has to feel good about all the work he has done with Haney on his swing.

"I've come a long, long way," Woods said. "And for all the people who have slammed me for making the changes, now you understand why I did it."

That doesn't make finishing second feel any better, however.

"The two seconds that I've had, I've had wonderful opportunities to win both of them," Woods said. "The PGA at Hazeltine [in 2002] and now here. Two wonderful opportunities and I did not get it done coming down the stretch."

That will be something for Woods to build on. Or dwell on.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.