YOU could taste the tension at Muirfield yesterday, especially amongst those players who thought they were in with a chance of winning this 142nd Open.
Tiger had his poker face on, Lee Westwood was fist pumping as if he was Andy Murray on steroids and homeboy Martin Laird got the fear so badly that he shot a nine on the relatively forgiving par-four third.
Whether or not they fancied their chances, none of those players could have been in any doubt that they were genuine contenders given the size of the retinue that followed them. Woods, in particular, looked as if he was the leader of a world record-sized game of Grandmother’s Footsteps. Every time he moved, so did his huge band of followers.
But several games in front of the madness that accompanies the world No.1, an entirely different scenario was unfolding. Unheralded, unfancied and unfollowed – you could have fitted the fans who had attached themselves to him in a telephone box – was Angel Cabrera.
Although he started the day on one under, within easy reach of the leaders, the mood music around the Argentine could scarcely have been more different than the high-tempo, high-pressure two-balls that would follow behind him. Standing on the 12th tee with his 20-something son, who is caddying for him, Cabrera leaned over and whispered a joke in Spanish into the boy’s ear. Cue much hilarity and belly laughs from the two South Americans as a puzzled Ryan Moore looked on in utter bemusement.
Moore, pictured right, is not the only one who is genuinely puzzled by the 43-year-old. After all, this is the player who spanked the ball all over Merion the last time out, shanking and hacking like a 24-handicapper, yet quite clearly didn’t give a toss. Yet every time a Major hoves into view, he gets his game face on, brings out his A game and is invariably in contention. The most recent example was this year’s Masters when he arrived ranked 269th in the world and ended up in a play-off with the eventual winner Adam Scott. In fact, he was only invited to play at Augusta because in 2009 he became the first South American to win the Masters, two years after he won his first Major, the US Open.
On the strength of his showing at Augusta and at Murifield yesterday, even though he is getting on a bit there is every chance that the Argentine still has it in him to claim another Major. He certainly looked like a man who knew what he was up to at the East Lothian links. While all around him were spending time in the rough, scrambling from bunkers and generally making as hard work of the course as possible, Cabrera was a time and motion experiment.
An immensely powerful bruiser of a man, the stocky South American has beautiful timing and can smack the ball into outer orbit, but yesterday he kept his wood in the bag, and left his full swing back in the clubhouse. Employing a three-quarter swing, and irons off the tee, he was resolutely straight off the tee. What’s more, he played with a conservatism that was as obvious as it was effective. The first 12 holes were played in regulation yesterday, Cabrera punching the ball down the centre of the fairways and pitching short when in doubt so that he had uphill putts.
The portly Argentine nicknamed “El Pato” for his habit of waddling like a duck, could scarcely be a less ergonomic being, yet he is also major golf’s stealth bomber, disappearing off the radar screen for huge periods of time and then, out of nowhere, flying in low and creeping up on an unsuspecting leaderboard. For all of his joking and bonhomie, he was at it again yesterday, playing with a focus that was almost palpable.
A run of three holes halfway through his round were a perfect illustration of his gameplan, which is to make as few mistakes as possible, play safe wherever possible and wait for the leaders to rack up the bogeys that will bring them towards him. On the par-four 12th, he under-hit, letting Moore hit a wood into the light rough, pitched to within 12 feet of the hole and missed the birdie putt by a couple of inches. On the next, the par-three 13th with a green that is shaped like a peanut, he let Moore perform the heroics, the American dropping the ball on the narrowest part of the green but close enough to get a birdie. Cabrera instead plonked his ball on the fat rump of the green on the other side of the flag, only to suddenly glimpse the leaderboard, which showed him just one shot behind leaders Woods and Westwood, and three-putt downhill in uncharacteristically tentative fashion. Yet by the 14th he was back on track, with a meaty but controlled drive, a scandalously smooth pitching wedge to drop the ball within ten feet and then a beautifully judged putt for a birdie.
Sadly for Cabrera, the plan went a little awry after that. From putting together 12 consecutive pars to be one off the lead, a par at the 15th was followed by a double bogey five after missing the green at the par-three 16th, a birdie at the par-five 17th and then a bogey at the last.
Yet Cabrera, who grew up dirt-poor in Cordoba and virtually lived at the golf club where he caddied from the age of ten to earn a crust to help his grandparents support him before Eduardo Romero took him under his wing, is nothing if not a fighter.
He ended the day at one over, four shots off the lead and within striking distance. With a powerful game, the ability to keep the ball low if the wind gets up as forecast, and a track record of hanging in there on the big occasions, the man they call The Duck is not out of this yet.