Tiger Woods of the United States hits the ball out of the bunker on the sixth hole on his second attempt at Royal Lytham & St Annes golf club during the final round of the British Open Golf Championship, Lytham St Annes, England Sunday, July 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
LYTHAM St. ANNES, England (AP) — The enduring image of Tiger Woods from this British Open will be of him bent over on one knee, his other leg angled to the side, as he desperately tried to save his day with a miracle shot from deep in a bunker off the sixth green. His adventure in the sand proved costly, though perhaps even more fatal to his chances were the three straight bogeys he made on the back nine when his mind seemed to wander.
He once seemed able to figure out ways to win majors like no other player could. Now Woods figures out ways to lose them, including two within the space of the last month or so that the Tiger of old might have run away with.
Another wasted opportunity, another weekend blown. He's still stuck at 14 major championships, and if he can't find a way to break through at the PGA Championship next month it will be almost five years and counting between major titles by the time the Masters rolls around next spring.
We judge him too harshly, yes, but only because he was once so great. Still could be if all the stars should align, though there still seems to be something missing from this version of Tiger Woods compared to the one who won on one leg at Torrey Pines in 2008, a time that must seem so long ago for him.
He analyzes things more than the Tiger of old, who simply went out and played golf. This one comes in with a game plan, but has no Plan B when it goes awry.
Blame it on stubbornness, or the arrogance that comes with being the only golfer who will ever chase Jack Nicklaus in the record books. Nicklaus himself sometimes fell into the same trap, mapping out a game plan and never veering from it despite changing conditions.
Ernie Els reached out Sunday and grabbed this Open, snatching it from Adam Scott. Woods tried to win — and lost — by playing it safe. The triple bogey on No. 6 didn't help, either.
"We've all been in positions to win golf tournaments and sometimes people go ahead and win them and take them away from you," Woods said. "Other times we make mistakes. And that's just the way it goes."
The problem with that logic is that it may not have gone that way if Woods had not stuck so rigidly to a game plan that called for iron after iron off the tee, even as he was falling further behind. While Els was banging his driver to set up birdies on the back-9, Woods was hitting approach shots from 200 yards or more out, and wasn't getting them anywhere close.
Els later said he got mad after making a bogey on No. 9 that left him six shots back of Scott with little choice than to attack the course. It worked, with four birdies coming in and his name being etched once again on the winner's claret jug.
Woods felt no such sense of urgency. For some reason, he saw no need to change what he was doing.
Unfortunately, the essence of links golf is adapting to what the course gives you and what the weather takes away. Woods' plan worked well enough the first two days to put him in contention after a pair of 67s, and the history of most majors is that caution works better than bravado.
But the pins were in more difficult spots on the weekend, harder to get close to with long irons. The wind picked up on Sunday, too, which Woods found out early when the safe 3-wood he went to on the 489-yard par-4 second hole almost ended up short in a fairway bunker.
It added up to a flawed game plan and yet another championship gone awry.
"I was in position to do what I wanted to do and then turn home and shoot maybe 1- or 2-under par on the back nine and I would have posted an 8- or 9-under par," Woods said. "And I thought that was going to be the number to win the golf tournament. I thought 8 was a playoff, 9 was to win outright. Unfortunately, I just didn't do it."
Of little consolation to Woods was that he moved up to No. 2 in the world rankings he used to dominate with his tie for third, a 3-over 73 that was his best finish in a major since he lost to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship.
But he remains winless in the last 17 majors, stuck in his longest drought of the tournaments he covets most. He's still four majors short of tying Nicklaus, exactly where he was four years ago at Torrey Pines when it seemed a foregone conclusion he would someday be crowned the greatest golfer ever.
He's pretty much given up trying to explain it. Now he philosophizes about it.
"It's part of golf. We all go through these phases," Woods said. "Some people, it lasts entire careers. Others are a little bit shorter. Even the greatest players to ever play have all gone through little stretches like this. When your playing careers last 40 and 50 years, you're going to have stretches like this."
There may be some truth to that, even if it's hard to imagine Woods playing 40 or 50 years.
Then again, there was a time it would have been hard to imagine him in the stretch he's in now.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg