The Open: Tiger Woods surviving on at Muirfield

Tiger Woods on the 18th tee. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Tiger Woods on the 18th tee. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IT WOULD be a radical step – and one that would finish off some of the Honourable Company once and for all ­– but you could have put a soundtrack to Tiger Woods’ round yesterday, you could have had him striding down the 18th on his way to a birdie at the end of a huge struggle to stay relevant in this championship with the Bee Gees hammering out Stayin’ Alive in the background.

“Well now, I get low and I get high,

And if I can’t get either, I really try.

Got the wings of heaven on my shoes.

I’m a dancin man and I just can’t lose.”

Wings of heaven? Dancin’ man? Okay, maybe we’re stretching it a bit here, but Woods’ second round was all about survival, all about the various acts of escapology that had his playing partner, Graeme McDowell, delivering not a verdict but a eulogy in the aftermath. This was Friday, but it wasn’t dissimilar to Thursday when Woods hit a tree and found sand on his first hole and dug out a bogey instead of the double that looked certain, when he had a chip roll back to his feet on the sixth and made par, when he missed a three-footer for birdie and didn’t let it bother him, when he played a bunker practically on his knees and still didn’t drop a shot. Woods really has no right to be where he is on the leaderboard, but he is and he’s ominous.

This was Woods yesterday: eight-footer for par on ten, seven-footer for par on 13, over the back of the green in the weeds on 14 and up and down for par, over the back of the green on 15 and another up and down for par. It was about patience, patience and more patience. Crouching Tiger, hidden birdie, which eventually he found on 18 to go two under to the general amazement of the man playing alongside him, not a greenhorn in this game but a US Open winner, a Ryder Cup icon, a man who has seen it all and takes a lot of impressing, but impressed he surely was.

Woods is playing Muirfield so conservatively that if he comes out today wearing a Tory rosette on his shirt then it wouldn’t be a surprise. “I’m not sure there is a better iron player in the world,” said McDowell, when lauding the Woods gameplan of keeping the timber in the bag. “It’s incredible how well he controls his ball flight. And he’s putting exceptionally well. I lost count of how many eight, ten, 15-footers he has made over the last two days. I’ve lost count over the last two days of how many comebacks he has made for par.

“I had to double check with Joe (LaCava, Woods’ caddie), that the driver head-cover actually had a driver underneath it because it actually hasn’t seen the light of day, not even close. He’s playing the golf course very conservatively and is using iron play to devastating effect. I said to him on the 18th green that that was a clinic the last two days. He looks like he’s very close to being back. It will be no surprise to me if he’s picking up the Claret Jug on Sunday night. If he continues to play like this, he’s going to be dangerous.”

In his press conference on Tuesday, Woods was more relaxed than normal; not exactly forthcoming with new information but less wary than he usually is in weeks like this. He was the same after his second round.

When told of McDowell’s comments about his driver head-cover and asked how many times he had used the big dog, Woods thought for a second and said: “I’ve hit, I believe, about eight or ten drivers.”

“Where? When?” came the confused reply.

“On the range,” Woods smiled. The smile of a man who knew that by end of the day he was going to be mightily close to the lead which, of course, he is. That is no surprise. He has been in similar situations in majors numerous times over the last five major-less years and hasn’t been able to get it together over the weekend. There is no doubting that Woods is largely staying out of trouble off the tee and is scrambling brilliantly when he needs to, but is he capable of finding an extra gear in the next two days? Does he even have to find an extra gear on this brutal track? Will mere survival get it done as all around him melt away? This is the great puzzler of the weekend.

“This is going to be a difficult one,” he said after the birdie on the last got him round in level par. “I’m just going to continue plodding along, just going to continue being patient and putting the ball in the right spots. We’re not going to get a lot of opportunities out there, but when I’ve had (chances) I’ve been able to capitalise and hopefully I can continue doing that.”

McDowell, as ever, had interesting observations to make and listening to him got you thinking about the Woods aura and whether it is really a thing of the past, as we all imagine it to be. McDowell positively gushed in praise of his playing partner.

“Tiger is six shots ahead of me and all I can do is focus on my own game now,” he said. “It’s very difficult to focus on your own game when you’re watching the best player, maybe ever, over the last two days. Especially with Louis (Oosthuizen, the third man in the group who retired hurt mid-round on Thursday) pulling out. It kind of made the intensity level crank up a little bit. I enjoy playing with Tiger. I’m fairly comfortable playing with him. The only trap I ever fall into is just standing back and admiring what’s happening beside me. It takes you out of your own zone sometimes.

“Sometimes (he hits a shot) and it’s like, ‘Really! Do I have to follow that?!’ He’s so impressive. The downfall is that you find yourself getting a little bit too full of admiration. If he continues to play the way he’s playing he’s going to be tough to beat.”

McDowell had to be reminded that, of the two, he was the only one who has won a major in the last five years. “Hadn’t thought about it that way,” he said. “Maybe I should have.”

He has a long way to go and much left to prove, but the leaders have Woods in their rear-view mirror now and regardless of five years and no major championships the sight of him on the leaderboard still has the power to unsettle.