Subdued Woods fails to conjure up final-day magic

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THE knowledgable Carnoustie galleries offered him a rousing cheer as he made his way down the 18th, but Tiger hardly seemed there at all.

His mind had already drifted back home, and the thought of a return to his weeks-old daughter. Holding Sam Alexis in his arms will seem acceptable consolation for having the Claret Jug finally torn from his grasp last night. Woods, as ever, was gracious, and accepted he'd simply never played well enough to claim history in Angus by equalling Peter Thomson's record of three successive wins.

Like others before him, most recently Tom Watson in 1984, Woods failed in his Open hat-trick attempt. Unlike Watson, who finished joint runner-up at St Andrews, he didn't even come close and settled for a share of 12th place with six others.

The dream never seemed like it would do anything other than perish. Yesterday's round of 70 was solid enough, but he needed to sparkle. Instead, he seemed somehow subdued.

Perhaps he just never truly believed this was to be his year. Three majors down, and he is still waiting to add to his 12 titles. It wasn't just Woods. Something about Carnoustie failed to catch fire this year. Bob Simpson, the revered club-maker and former professional at Dalhousie golf club in the town, once referred to the town as a "soporific sanctuary". This was in 1919, but at times yesterday you could see what he meant.

The course has been exquisite, but the atmosphere lacked something. Passion had been apparently left at the gates, along with the mobile phones and cameras. Woods noticed this too, and put it down to the reduced number of spectators. Certainly, around his group a mournful air had developed.

"Keep yer heid up, Tiger," came one shout from the crowd. Another Scottish voice was heard at the 14th hollering: "Tiger, you're the mon." At this, his features broke out into a big smile. He may be a dethroned champion, but he still remains a class above.

Woods had allowed his form to dip from exceptional to merely moderate. And we can grant him this, surely, particularly at a time of domestic upheaval and with some question remaining over his fitness. There has been the suggestion of a shoulder injury, although he denied it yesterday. "It was all good," he said, when asked about his aches.

He said on Saturday that he just had to play a little better than he had been to make a charge. In fact, he played a little worse, and carded a 70 - one more than the previous day. This frustrated him, since he reckoned he still had a realistic chance to keep the jug when he teed off yesterday lunchtime, with the rain at its heaviest.

"If I could have posted six or seven under par, I would have been right there in the mix," he said. "With the conditions, and the way the golf course has been playing, you can make some birdies." He managed four, but he also made three bogeys.

Walking with Tiger yesterday was surreal. Normally, following his fortunes amounts to a campaign. In St Andrews in 2000, he performed in a cloud of dust kicked up by the heels of thousands. Within the ropes clumps of press and television reporters grouped, watched carefully by a line of police officers. To be there felt like being at the centre of the sporting world.

Yet yesterday was different. A drama was unfolding, just not here. Cheers would suddenly erupt, and heads would turn to another green, another fairway. Woods, too, had his thoughts elsewhere, and made some surprising errors. At the eighth hole, a bogey saw his name drop completely from the leaderboard.

A missed birdie putt at the next prompted a very un-Tiger like "f***" curse. Normally, this emerges from his mouth as the less trenchant "frick". But the Anglo-Saxon version came clear as a bell yesterday.

It was at the 15th hole that he as good as handed back the Claret Jug. Woods planted a tee shot into the right-side bunker on the way to a bogey that was, in essence, his surrender.

He probably wished to call it a day, hop on the private jet there and then. But enough competitive spirit remained for him to play the last three holes in par for a 70, which saw him finish at two under par for the tournament.

Afterwards, he sounded like someone who couldn't wait to get home to Florida, and to a waiting bundle who cares not a whit for his troubles on a damp east coast stretch of Scotland. "It's been a week, and it's hard to believe you can miss something that's only been gone for a week," he smiled. "But I certainly do miss them [Sam and Erin, his wife]."