Tiger Woods’ latest bid for a 15th major championship took flight Friday at the British Open on a Muirfield course better suited for pilots navigating single-engine planes than golfers steering many-dimpled balls.
Woods posted an even-par 71 for a 36-hole score of 2-under 140, one stroke behind Miguel Angel Jimenez (71). Tied for second with Woods are Henrik Stenson (70), Columbia native Dustin Johnson (72) and Lee Westwood, who gave three strokes back to par on the final six holes and still carded a 68 to match his playing partner, Charl Schwartzel, for the low round of the day.
A heat wave has left the fabled layout’s fairways and greens baked to a crisp, and the course’s set-up has made the blood of many of the players boil. Ernie Els, who won the tournament last year and when it was last here, in 2002, carded his second consecutive 74 and all but begged the R&A, which runs the event, to water the course.
“It’s a pretty tough battle out there,” said Els, whose 6-over total made the cut with two strokes to spare. Rory McIlroy, the world No. 2, missed the cut by four with scores of 79-75. Brandt Snedeker, who finished third at last year’s British Open, chased his opening 68 with a 79 and said he was “constantly frustrated.”
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Woods, like Westwood and Stenson, played in the morning, which allowed him to survive to laugh about the challenge that Muirfield presented. Asked how many drivers he hit on a day when his sand wedge was traveling 180 yards on the roll, he said, “Eight or 10.”
Woods maintained a straight face for another beat or two, then added, “On the range.”
Woods and Westwood have more in common than their 36-hole score. Westwood began a dialogue with Woods’ swing coach, Sean Foley, at the Memorial Tournament in May and had resolved to work with him before Justin Rose, another of Foley’s players and a compatriot of Westwood’s, won his first major title last month at the U.S. Open.
Rose broke his maiden in his 33rd major as a professional, although he missed the cut here. Westwood is 0 for 61. Not that anyone in Britain is counting.
In a summer that has seen Rose win the U.S. Open, Andy Murray triumph at Wimbledon and Chris Froome bring Britain to the brink of a second consecutive Tour de France title, karma would seem to be draped in the Union Jack.
“There’s definitely a feel-good factor in Britain,” Westwood said. He added, “I’m just concentrating on what I’ve got going on at the moment.”
Woods’ focus has always been the four majors, but he has come up empty since winning the 2008 U.S. Open. Not that anyone in the golf world is counting.
“I’ve had chances on the back nine of many of those Sundays,” said Woods, who has recorded second-, third- or fourth-place finishes in every major during the winless streak. “Just one of those things where I haven’t gotten it.”
Woods, 37, is one of golf’s all-time clutch performers, but in recent years his bravado has developed cracks under stress. On Friday, Woods talked about what was going through his mind as he stood over a 5-foot par putt on the eighth hole. “I felt left-center, but I kept looking at it and I felt more dead-straight-to-center,” he said. “And then maybe I need to play left-center because the wind is blowing, it’s coming off my left, going to move it down the hill.”
The power of the mind is such that, whether a golfer believes he has the right line or the wrong line, he is usually right. So is it any wonder that, when Woods struck the putt, he blocked it and made a bogey?
If Woods can quiet the chatter in his head, watch out. Graeme McDowell, who played alongside Woods the first two days, said, “If he continues to play the way he’s playing, he’s going to be tough to beat.”
McDowell, who matched Woods’ second-round 71 to make the cut at 4 over, said there were moments when he found himself admiring Woods’ shots as if he were outside the ropes. “It’s like, ‘Do I have to follow that?’ ” he said with a laugh.
Someone reminded McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, that he had more major titles in the past four years than Woods. “Hadn’t thought about it that way,” he said. “Maybe I should have.”
Dustin Johnson got himself into a predicament on the 15th that his only option from a bunker was to aim sideways into the rough.
“Every hole is playing hard,” Johnson said. “You don’t get any breaks. You’ve really got to grind it out. It’s tough off the tee. It’s tough on your approach shot and it’s tough putting.”
Phil Mickelson was in range of the lead until a four-putt on the 16th hole, his second double bogey of the day. That was one hole after Mickelson made a par putt that would have gone 15 feet by if he had missed.
There were 23 players separated by five shots going into the weekend, and 10 of them are major champions.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.