Cabrera finds new Open model; wins without finding the fairway

OAKMONT, Pa. -- Angel Cabrera caddied at a local country club to help with the family finances, picking up the game by default. There were no golf academies in Argentina, no college scholarships offered and no formal instruction.

Cabrera simply learned to hit the ball hard, go find it and hit it again -- a strategy that served him well in winning the U.S. Open on Sunday.

It didn't seem to matter that Cabrera, 37, a big-hitting, chain-smoking journeyman pro on the PGA European Tour, was crushing the ball all over Oakmont Country Club for four days, high rough and slick greens be damned.

He managed to get it in the hole in one less stroke than two of golf's preeminent players, Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk.

So he joins Roberto De Vicenzo as Argentina's only major champions, 40 years apart.

And he becomes another U.S. Open champion cut from a different mold; a surprise winner who hits the ball a mile, takes his chances with the rough and ends up holding the championship hardware.

Last year, the Open champion was Australia's Geoff Ogilvy, an excellent player who hits the ball a long way but had just two PGA Tour victories before his win at Winged Foot. The year before at Pinehurst, it was another long hitter, Michael Campbell, who posted his only U.S. victory that day and has eight European Tour titles.

Even Retief Goosen, who has U.S. Open victories in 2001 and 2004, is not exactly the most accurate driver of the ball. He was certainly a surprise winner when he claimed the first title in 2001.

It was Ogilvy who pointed out earlier this year that being a straight driver is overrated at the U.S. Open these days because the fairways are so narrow that everyone is going to find the rough. The point: It's better to be long and crooked than short and crooked.

"No one can hit it straight enough to hit every fairway at the U.S. Open," said Ogilvy, whose winning score last year at Winged Foot (285) was the same total Cabrera posted at Oakmont. "It's so difficult, almost impossible really."

Cabrera hit just five fairways Sunday and only four Saturday and still won. He hit just 27 in four days -- tied for 48th amongst the 63 men who made cut.

But he blasted his drives to a tune of 310 yards -- second-best in the field -- for the tournament and managed to make a whopping 13 birdies. Woods, who had a far more conservative game plan, made just eight birdies, just one in his final 32 holes. Cabrera had two of the eight subpar rounds of the tournament, the only player to get to red numbers more than once.

The formula for winning the Open, it seems, is changing right before our very eyes. Cabrera is just the latest example.

Despite winning just three times on the European Tour and another 11 in South America, Cabrera had become something of an accomplished major player, if not a winner. This was his eighth U.S. Open without missing a cut. He finished seventh at the British Open last year and was tied for fourth in 1999. He also has three top-10s at the Masters.

"He's a big, strong guy, a big hitter, and he's won quite a few tournaments," said Sweden's Niclas Fasth, who is friends with Cabrera. "He's a great player. I must say I'm not that surprised. He's shown that he can do this."

Cabrera turned pro at age 20 and received guidance from another Argentine pro, Eduardo Romero, who hails from the same town, Cordoba, and won more than 80 titles in South America. Romero, who now plays on the Champions Tour, won eight times on the European Tour and was once Cabrera's financial backer and mentor.

All of that was far from Cabrera's mind Sunday afternoon as he did his best to withstand the suffocating pressure. Cabrera smoked, fidgeted, talked to his caddie and smoked some more.

"There are some players who have psychologists, sportologists," Cabrera joked through his interpreter. "I smoke."

He can also smoke a drive a long, long way.

And, as he proved this week, it didn't really matter where it ended up.

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.