Tiger's days of winning Majors may be over after this latest disappointment
They were already evacuating the hospitality suites by the time Tiger Woods made the long walk up the 17th fairway. The mobile bars were being packed up and spectators were padding through the exits.
Those that could were scrambling over the bank to watch Phil Mickelson. While Lefty cracked open the champagne, Woods was once more left to clear up the empties.
Sixth place in a Major is obviously not to be sniffed at, and Woods was at pains to point out that he had again challenged on the final afternoon. But rarely has he played as badly as this in a situation as critical as this.
His score of 74 – three-over-par for the round, two-over for the tournament – flattered him. Woods was poor not just by his own standards, but by anyone's. At Augusta in 1997, he went the entire week without a single three-putt. Here, there were five. Those five dropped shots were the difference between him and victory.
He blamed the greens. "I had a hard time adjusting to the speeds," he said. "It was frustrating. It usually gets faster as the week goes on, but this week it was different. I'm very surprised. It was a very different golf course today."
It was a depressingly familiar Woods, though. You could have compiled a highlights reel of his bad shots.
There was the approach to the first hole that finished 30 yards short of the flag. Or the awful, awful chip shot from the back of the ninth green. Or the second shot at the 11th that flew straight through the back of the green and into the sand trap behind it. Or perhaps the seven-foot par putt that slipped by on the 15th and put him out of contention for good.
Had Woods missed that putt a decade ago, it would have drawn stunned gasps from the galleries.
Here, all it brought was a polite sigh.
It is easy to make snap judgments about these things, but the indisputable truth is that every Major that Woods fails to win makes it less likely that he will win the next.
Winning tour titles is all very well, and Woods has won four of those in 2013. But performances in the four Major championships are how he assesses his own work, and the general downward trajectory of his career in that respect is impossible to ignore.
Context is everything. If you were to run the career of Tiger Woods in reverse, it would be one of the great Hollywood plotlines. After more than five years of contending for a Major title, he finally breaks his duck at Torrey Pines in 2008, watched by his fabulous new model wife Elin, before going on one of the most remarkable winning streaks sport has ever seen.
His career climaxes with perhaps his greatest triumph of all, ripping Augusta apart to win the Masters by 12 strokes, at which point he gives up the professional game and takes amateur status in order to go to university.
It is not his greatness that is in question here, but his place in the pantheon. Whether Woods' 14 Majors trump Jack Nicklaus's 18 is an issue for debate. But on the measure of longevity, it is no contest: while Woods won his titles within the space of 11 years, Nicklaus's Major wins spanned 24, straddling the wooden and metal eras, bridging the divide between black and white and colour television.
"In that spell where I haven't won since Torrey, I've been in there," he protested. "It's not like I've lost my card and not playing out here. I've won some tournaments in that stretch, and I've been in probably about half the Majors on the back nine on Sunday with a chance to win. I just haven't done it yet." Is the desire still there? Woods fixed his questioner with a lordly stare.
"I want every one," he replied. "Are you kidding me? I felt like I was really playing well today."
And so the wait goes on, although the term is somewhat misleading. Woods is not 'waiting' for his 15th Major. Instead, it is a Sisyphean struggle of trying, and failing, and trying again, and failing harder. Whether the cycle will ever be broken is a question that will beset the sport for as long as it takes. (© Daily Telegraph, London)