Even with 21 majors, they still had everything to gain by winning the U.S. Open.
For Tiger Woods, a chance to end six months of bad publicity with a 15th major. For Phil Mickelson, a golden opportunity to win something other than silver in the U.S. Open. For Ernie Els, a much-needed reminder that his best golf in the majors is not behind him.
Forgetting about Sunday at Pebble will not be easy.
He shot 75 and remains tied with Hale Irwin.
Els was tied for the lead in the final round, for about only 15 minutes, but he had not been in that position at a major in six years. Worse than his bogey-double bogey-bogey stretch along the coast was missing three putts inside 8 feet in a four-hole stretch late in the round.
As for Mickelson?
He started with a birdie and never made another one the rest of the day. Mickelson knows as well as anyone that bogeys are acceptable in a U.S. Open. What hurt him were a series of pars in the first hour, none more painful than the 328-yard fourth hole. He hit a 3-wood to 15-feet for eagle and three-putted for what must have felt like a bogey.
The winner was Graeme McDowell, who made only one birdie in his round of 74 to win a U.S. Open where the stars didn't shine.
It wasn't the first time this has happened in a major.
Seven years ago in the British Open, three of the top 10 players in the world challenged for the claret jug on the back nine of Royal St. George's — Woods, Davis Love III and Vijay Singh — only to finish in the top five behind surprise winner Ben Curtis.
For all the majors that Woods, Mickelson and Els have won, they know something about losing. All of them have had close calls at least a half-dozen times in majors, when the championship turns on a putt or a bounce.
In this case, it's a question of whom it hurts the most.
Woods is desperate for a victory to shift focus from his personal life, and to establish anew some form of intimidation he once had. Instead, this was the third straight major that Woods teed off in one of the final two pairings without winning.
No one should have been surprised that Woods did not play his best golf Sunday, even after his 66 in the third round in which he finally delivered so many special shots that have defined his career. He keeps talking about a "long process" in getting his game back together, and there's some truth to that. But he's not there yet.
There is too much uncertainty over too many shots, and way too much commotion inside his head from outside forces, namely the state of his marriage and the unending fallout from his affairs.
"The two major championships I finished, I had a chance to win both of them," he said. "So it's not too bad."
Mickelson took another step toward becoming his generation's Sam Snead, who never won the U.S. Open. This might have been an even better opportunity than Lefty had last year at Bethpage Black, when he was runner-up for a record fifth time.
"I wanted to win," he said. "I'm glad it wasn't a second."
The humor veiled great disappointment, for this U.S. Open opportunity came with much more than a trophy. Mickelson could have gone to No. 1 in the world for the first time, and gone to St. Andrews with great hype about a Grand Slam. Only five other players had ever won the first two legs of the modern Grand Slam.
Aside from missing key putts, Mickelson didn't do much wrong. He three-putted from 20 feet on the 10th, missed an 8-foot par putt on the 14th that he struck perfectly, and picked up his last bogey when he had to make birdie, aiming at the flag on the 16th.
What stings for Els is that of those three, he had the best chance of winning.
A 5-iron to 2 feet on the 12th got him back to even for the tournament, two shots out of the lead. And after a bogey on the 14th, Els was poised to make a run with a wedge he stuffed on the 15th to 4 feet. He missed that (and had to make a 5-foot par), then missed a par from 8 feet on the 17th to fall to 2 over. Needing an eagle on the par-5 18th, his 3-iron was weak and to the right.
"I had some chances coming down the stretch, but I wasn't able to convert," Els said Monday on his website. "I guess a handful of other players could say the same thing. That's major championship golf. It's always won or lost by the tiniest of margins."
In this case, it was a little of both.