TIGER WOODS WAS having a pretty good day, though the fans lining the seventh hole might have thought otherwise. They had the misfortune of having to listen as he unleashed a string of loud expletives directed at himself and a ball that bounced over the green into the rough.
Hardly the way a gentleman golfer at the British Open is supposed to act, even if no one seemed to take much offense. Not with home favorite Lee Westwood on the green putting for birdie in a championship that even on Saturday was already becoming a two-man show within a show.
The two battled back and forth on a breezy afternoon at Muirfield as if the claret jug would be given out at the end to the winner of their match. They traded shots and they traded the lead in a personal duel that seemed destined to end up all even until Westwood birdied the 17th hole to give himself bragging rights for the day and a bit of a cushion going into the final round of a tournament both are desperate to win.
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For Westwood, the math is simple. He’s 40 and badly in need of a major championship to validate a career that has been solid.
For Woods, it’s more complex. He’s trying to recapture whatever it was he once had to win 14 of these things, including three British Opens. The problem is, even he doesn’t seem to know what it is.
They won’t be in the final group together because Woods made a bogey on the 17th hole, though it hardly matters. Not to either player, and certainly not to the crowd that has pretty much tuned out Hunter Mahan and a handful of other players bunched on the leader board with a chance of winning.
They mostly want Westwood, but they’ll settle for Woods. And they fully expect one of them to deliver.
So, too, does the best player in the world.
“I’ve got 14 of these things, and I know what it takes to win it,” Woods said. “He’s won tournaments all over the world. He knows how to win golf tournaments.”
If Woods is to win, he’ll have to make up the two shots that separate the two players. That’s something that can happen quickly on the treacherous links of Muirfield, where there were four two-shot swings between Woods and Westwood, including the final one on the 17th.
But there are still questions about Woods’ ability to deliver under pressure in a major, something he hasn’t been able to do since his life changed when he was caught in a sex scandal. It’s been five years since he won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, and he’s relying on memories that fade more with every one that gets away when he tries to figure out how to win the big ones.
Woods has never won a major coming from behind in the final round, which he’ll have to do to win this one. Then there’s the uncomfortable position of having to play in the same group Sunday with Adam Scott, whose caddie was on the bag for Woods in 13 of his majors and who has a publicly testy relationship with his former boss.
If Woods does win he may have the third round to thank for it. He’s blown up on the weekend in recent majors, including a 76 in the third round that knocked him from contention in the U.S. Open. But he was steady on a brutal course for the most part Saturday, even taking the lead with a birdie on the second hole, before finishing with a 1-over 72 that left him tied for second with Mahan, two shots back.
It helps that he seldom has to pull his often erratic driver out of the bag on the fast links course. A lot of the success he has had over three days has come using irons off the tee and then hitting shots into safe parts of the green. It’s a formula that works under tough conditions, and it’s put Woods into his best position going into the final round since he came back from the scandal.
Still, he’s badly in need of a major win to jumpstart his chase of the record of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus. If he doesn’t win here or at the PGA Championship next month, his drought in the majors would be nearing six years.
For Woods, that would be something to really swear about.