The Open: Wait goes on for Tiger Woods despite hints of return to happier days
If ANYTHING, this could go down as a reassuring afternoon for Tiger Woods, despite the obvious question which forms on the lips of those who wonder whether he can re-connect with a winner’s mind-set in majors, the one which trails him from tee to green on occasions such as these: will he ever win one again?
Yesterday again underlined how there are no certainties in golf. When a 42 year-old comes from six shots back to win the Open, when he does this ten years after his last triumph and the year after another 42 year-old came in from odds of 150-1 to claim the title, then Woods is entitled to believe he can end what is, after all, only a four-year famine.
This was the 17th major since Woods last won, at the US Open in 2008. There have been 17 different victors. It is a lottery out there. Woods had at least bought a ticket yesterday by dint of his steady rounds over the previous three days. However, his Waterloo arrived yesterday at the sixth, which he triple bogeyed in distressing fashion, and contributed to his three-over-par 73.
His challenge had been briefly resuscitated just after the turn, when he birdied the 10th and 12th to put him four shots behind Adam Scott, and into joint second place with Els. At this point, it wasn’t a question of can he ever do it again? It was, can he do it here?
We did not have long to wait for the answer. Els increased the pressure on Scott, while Woods fell away thanks to three consecutive bogeys at the 13th, 14th and 15th. It was a let-down for the crowd, whose desire for the American to start asking some questions of his own was nowhere more apparent than at the 11th tee. After a long discussion with caddie Joe LaCava, Woods could be heard to say: “I have got to hammer this to carry the bunker”. He then lifted out the under-used driver from his bag.
The response this drew from the spectators was remarkable. Woods was finally throwing caution to the wind and the cheers could be heard in Blackpool. Not that the shot he then played will convince him to use it more often. The ball veered wide to the right, landing in rough. It hadn’t even reached as far as the bunker. Woods recovered to rescue par. Even though he birdied the next hole, the momentum had gone.
Els’ triumph meant that another question has to be addressed. After both his and Darren Clarke’s Open victories, after the remarkable performance of Tom Watson at Turnberry three years ago, can nothing at all be ruled out in golf? But to be so dramatic, the sport has to be cruel on someone. “It has happened to us all at one point or another,” said Woods, as the awful details of Scott’s disintegration were being checked in the recorder’s hut behind him. “We’ve all been in positions to win tournaments. Sometimes people go ahead and win them and take them away from you, other times we make mistakes. That is just the way it goes.”
Woods felt for Scott but he had his own disappointment to deal with yesterday. Many believed he was being too conservative during the opening five holes, but when he did seek to attack at the par-5 sixth, he was undone by a shot which he immediately exclaimed was “one yard” off line. This observation, made to LaCava, was not even the half of it. It soon became clear that Woods had landed up against the wall in the steep left-hand greenside bunker.
LaCava convinced Woods to seek to play it out high against the flag. But his paymaster was right to have his doubts. The ball was blasted against the lip of the bunker and it was all Woods could do to avoid it hitting him on the rebound, which would have meant being penalised by another shot. Now the lie gave him no stance and he had to get down on his knees, Seve Ballesteros-style, even just to play it out sideways, which he managed – just. The ball was still a distance from the flag, and he needed a disastrous three putts to get there. He picked up a shot at the next hole. However, his plan to attack now had an air of desperation about it.
He revealed later that his strategy had been to try and get to the turn in under par for the day. In the end, he made it there at three over. This was the opposite of a plan coming together. “I was even par through the fifth hole,” he reflected later. “So I was in position to do what I wanted to do and then turn home and shoot maybe one or two under par on the back nine, which would have taken me to eight or nine under par. I thought that was going to be the number to win the tournament – eight was a play-off, and nine was a win outright.”
He was right on that count, but he couldn’t get there, playing the last nine holes in par. But had it been a day to lament? A birdie at the last meant Woods had dropped from six under par for the tournament to three. Brandt Snedeker, his playing partner, dropped four shots. Graeme McDowell, playing in the last group and eager to put pressure on Scott, dropped five. The wind was clearly causing some problems, but had it not been for his difficulties at the sixth hole, then who knows? “Overall, I am pleased with the way I played,” said Woods. “Unfortunately, just a couple here and a couple here ended up costing me some momentum.” Woods was also hampered by a familiar shortcoming of his time here. Again and again he left putts short.
And yet, there were further signs of his recovery. He is hitting longer again, something he attributed to the “pop” having returned to his swing. “I finally feel really healthy,” he added. He flashed a mega-wattage grin at the end of his round, tipping his hat to the galleries before leaving the scene clear for the other actors in this latest drama. But there remained the feeling that while it has not been Royal Lytham, there will be another place and another time for Woods, who, if nothing else, succeeded in making himself seem an easier character to love here.
He provided reporters with thoughtful answers and even engaged once or twice with the spectators. After his birdie at the 13th, he responded to some rowdy celebrations by a group of Americans, who pleaded with him to fling them his ball. “It’s my last one,” he replied, before further claiming that it was the one he last won with, so he was hanging on to it. LaCava, though, delved into his bag and threw them another.
Woods also seemed keen to converse with Snedeker, who had to endure his own agonies, including a lost ball at the seventh, as he carded a four-over par 74. Both he and Woods tied for third place, at three under par for the tournament.
It has been Woods’ best showing at a major since a certain fire hydrant incident. He was right to be encouraged by the sight of Els taking back possession of the Claret Jug, a decade on. “We all go through phases,” he said, with reference to another major having slipped from him. “For some people, [famines] last their entire careers. For others, it’s a little bit shorter. Even the greatest players have had little stretches like this. When your playing career lasts into your forties and fifties, you are going to have stretches like this.”
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Friday 24 May 2013
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