TIGER Woods is like a needle stuck on the 15th track, playing the same old tune, the same old words, round and round again. You ought to know how it goes by now. Fine for the first two days, high hopes heading into the weekend then, somehow, it all slips away.
That, at least, is the way it has been these last five years. Since the most recent of his 14 grand slam victories, at the US Open in 2008, he has ground to a halt in his quest to challenge the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus. The problem, on too many occasions, has been the way he finishes tournaments.
Last year at The Open, he manoeuvred himself into a promising position after a pair of 67s at Royal Lytham, only to fall away. That came shortly after a US Open in which he had a 36-hole lead at Olympic, but finished 75-73. In fact, in his last 13 weekend rounds at a major championship, he has broken par only twice. Remember when it used to be the other way around? Remember the Tiger whose grip of a tournament squeezed the life out of everyone else? If he was out in front, he was there to stay and, if he wasn’t, there was a pretty good chance he would get there before close of play on a Sunday night.
At each successive major, the question is whether it will all come flooding back, whether the magic will return. As Woods heads into the final round of this, his 17th shot at winning a 15th title, could it be the one? Certainly, he kept his show on the road in yesterday’s third round, although a 72 left him a shot further off the lead than he was when he started. After a first-round 69 and a second-round 71, he is not heading in the right direction.
Still, as he pointed out last night, there is only one player ahead of him. Lee Westwood, with whom he played here, is two shots better off thanks to a one-under-par 70. After quite a duel in which he and the Englishman frequently traded leadership of the tournament, Woods will go out in today’s penultimate match with Adam Scott.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge of it,” said Woods. “I’ve been in this position before in the past five years. I’ve been in that hunt, that mix. And I’m in it again. Hopefully, I can play well and win the tournament.”
It was put to Woods that he should fancy his chances, despite the deficit. He, after all, has been there and done it often enough, while Westwood, who still aches for that elusive major breakthrough at the age of 40, will have the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“I don’t know,” said Woods. “I’ve got 14 of these things. I know what it takes to win. He’s won tournaments all over the world. He knows how to win. He’s two shots ahead and we’re going out there to compete and play but it’s not just us two. There’s a bunch of guys who have a chance to win this tournament.”
If Woods is to pull it off, he will need to putt better than he did yesterday, when he failed to threaten the hole often enough. Time and again, he left them short and left. He has played it canny this week, bunting irons along the fairway – as he did when he won at Hoylake in 2006 – and babying his putts down to the hole. But, on a day when the greens were not so fiery, he needed more conviction. On the last, he came up a foot short with a putt that would have taken him to within a shot of the lead.
“It was very different today, a lot slower out there,” he said. “The greens were slower. It looked like they didn’t roll some of them or cut them. Eighteen was really slow. There were quite a few guys leaving putts short from below the hole. Lee got fooled a couple of times and so did I. We land the ball in green spots and it sticks. Land the ball in a dry spot and it runs 70, 80 yards.”
So careful did the pair have to be that they were among the slow players who were put on the clock. Not that it detracted from a match that had the usual Tiger entourage. Caddies, scorers, reporters, marshals and so many photographers, scurrying and lying like snipers in the grass that is was as though a small army was advancing from the beaches.
On the face of it, Woods’ round was unremarkable, notable only for its two birdies and three bogeys. But he and Westwood had a fair old tussle for the lead. The Englishman, two strokes behind Woods after the third, was three ahead after the seventh but, as they edged towards the end of an evenly-contested back nine, it was the par-5 17th that made the difference. While Westwood birdied, Woods bogeyed, thanks to three putts and a shot into a bunker that caused him to spit in disgust. Whether it proves to be costly is the question on everyone’s lips.