By Mark Lamport-Stokes
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - While Webb Simpson emerged from the damp mist to win his first major title at the U.S. Open on Sunday, fellow American Tiger Woods remained in a fog of doubt over the true state of his game.
Woods arrived at the Olympic Club as the tournament favorite with his confidence high and his trademark fist pump back, having clinched his 73rd PGA Tour victory at the Memorial just two weeks earlier.
Many believed the 14-times major winner was back to his best and that he was poised to end a title drought of four years in golf's blue riband events on one of its toughest courses.
Opening rounds of 69 and 70 lifted Woods into a three-way tie for the lead at the tournament's halfway point but it proved to be another false dawn and he fell back into a tie for 21st, six strokes behind Simpson.
When Woods reigned supreme in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he would routinely put himself within striking distance with solid opening rounds at the majors before ruthlessly shutting the door on his rivals over the weekend.
Granted, on the brutal Lake Course at the Olympic Club, Woods had to negotiate a hilly, fast-running layout where there was very little margin for error and frequently a wafer thin line between success and failure.
Yet the former world number one was unable to close the deal as he had done so often in the past, having oozed confidence with superb driving and distance control on Thursday and Friday to put himself into perfect position to challenge for the title.
Woods struggled with his putting over the weekend and his accuracy off the tee crumbled. Having led eventual champion Simpson by six shots after 36 holes, Woods spiraled out of contention with closing scores of 75 and 73.
His bid to win a first major crown since the 2008 U.S. Open was effectively ended when he began the final round with bogey, bogey, double-bogey, par, bogey then bogey.
Woods, however, felt the positives far outweighed the negatives after he failed to win a major title for only the second time in 10 attempts when holding at least a share of the halfway lead.
'A FRACTION OFF'
"I'm excited about the consistency of it, how well I hit the ball all week, really," the 36-year-old American said. "I didn't really miss it that badly this week. The misses were just a fraction off, which is great."
While Woods has certainly made huge strides as he continues to refine the fourth swing change of his career, under the guidance of Sean Foley, his ability to shine under major pressure certainly appears diminished.
Two weeks after winning his first PGA Tour event in 30 months at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, he recorded his worst performance at the Masters since he turned professional as he tied for 40th.
At the U.S. Open, just two weeks after drawing level with Jack Nicklaus on 73 PGA Tour wins, Woods failed to take advantage of his ideal position going into the final 36 holes.
While his driving accuracy dropped from 79 percent in the second round to 50 percent in round three and only 35 percent on Sunday, he totaled 63 putts over the weekend and twice missed the green at the par-four last, when he had a wedge in his hand.
Asked if he had let slip another golden opportunity to end his major title drought, Woods replied: "Boy, you could say that of a lot of tournaments, can't you?
(Editing by Julian Linden)