LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – It seems apropos that on a scoreboard that includes self- deprecating Scot Paul Lawrie there may need to be a Jean Van de Velde moment to keep Sunday’s final turn from becoming an 18-hole coronation.
But if a flurry of unforced errors is what it will take to transform the 141st Open Championship from rout to race it’s not from a lack of effort by those in pursuit.
Scott, a non-starter in so many majors until he started figuring things out last year, and Woods, vying for his 15th major but playing like he did to collect No. 11 at Royal Bunt & Bounce in 2006 down the coast at Hoylake, will head out into an English summer five strokes adrift and 10 minutes before Scott.
With apologies to Williams, Woods’ former caddie who caused a stir in 2011 when Scott won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the New Zealander announced it was the “best win of my career,” just imagine how fulfilling a claret jug would be for the Kiwi?
First, however, Scott will have to negotiate gusts that are forecast to reach 30 mph, a resurgent Woods and a leaderboard with a combined 22 major bottle caps.
“A four-shot lead doesn’t seem to be much this year,” said Scott, who followed rounds of 64-67 with a flawless 68 for an 11-under total and a four-shot lead over Graeme McDowell and Brandt Snedeker. “The good part is if I play a solid round tomorrow it will be very hard for the other guys to catch me.”
And so it begins, the “Great Chase” Lytham-style on a links that has been on the softer side of Royal & Ancient this week. For three days, however, it seems as if Scott has been running downhill.
Early on Saturday U.S. Golf Association executive director Mike Davis dismissed the idea that a Scott victory at Lytham – which would be the third by a player using a long putter in the last four majors – might expedite the ongoing review of the long putter’s future. Perhaps, but at the rate Scott is going the implement’s shelf life may quickly be nearing an end.
For the week Scott has a 1.59 putting average, no three-putts and is 4-for-4 from the ubiquitous greenside bunkers. To put that in context, he has a 1.776 putting average on the PGA Tour this season and ranks 142nd and 187th in one-putt percentage and three-putt avoidance, respectively.
If ever the stage was set for Scott to break through and win his first major this is it. The only nagging thought is the group assembled behind him.
Scott will head out in the final game with McDowell, who will be playing in the last group on Sunday at the second consecutive major, and, having grown up on the venerable Royal Portrush links in Northern Ireland, may be the player best prepared for whatever Mother Nature has in store for Sunday.
“He’s going to have to go win it,” said McDowell, who carded a 67. “But there is a distinct lack of 65s on this golf course. Perhaps we’ll need a little wind to make that job easier.”
McDowell came up one stroke short at last month’s U.S. Open and has the advantage of having won a major (2010 U.S. Open) and would become the second consecutive Northern Irishman to claim the claret jug.
Snedeker, however, has been learning on the job this week. Your 36-hole, record-setting front-runner played his first 40 holes without a bogey, finding a bunker or posting a three-putt. Unfortunately he hit a bump in the road to Lytham and bogeyed five of seven starting at the fifth on Saturday and will begin the downwind leg of this regatta four strokes back after rallying with two late birdies.
“I’ve come from behind before, I can do it again tomorrow,” Snedeker (73) said. “The conditions will be tough, which is good. So hopefully I can keep it going.”
He will begin Sunday paired with Woods – whose game plan of playing the percentages off the tees with irons, like he did in ’06 at Hoylake, has put him within five strokes of his fourth claret jug but has done little to help his birdie average.
If Woods fails to win his first major since 2008 it seems a certain armchair analyst will dissect his conservative play this week on the Irish Sea, at least for the first three days when conditions more resembled a Tour stop.
But if Woods had any interest in changing blueprints on Sunday he wasn’t letting on following his even-par 70 on Day 3.
“We’ll see what the forecast is,” Woods said. “Let’s see what actually happens. If the wind blows or not, I’ve still got to go out there and post the round that I know I need to post and execute my plan.”
At least Woods & Co. find themselves within a touchdown of Scott. Zach Johnson, a winner last week at the John Deere Classic, and Ernie Els, who has finished inside the top three in both his Opens at Lytham, are tied at 5 under and will need a combination of weather and vastly shifting fortunes to close the gap.
“I feel something special can happen,” Els said. “I’ve put in a lot of work the last couple of years; something good is bound to happen.”
Whether it’s a collapse, a comeback or a coronation, there’s little doubt about that.