GULLANE, Scotland – It was just one shot in a week that has seen 212 of them, but Tiger Woods’ poor approach on the 17th hole Saturday carried significant ramifications.
Psychologically, at least.
Now, he is wondering how, on a day when he hit 12 fairways and 14 greens, he could still shoot over par. (A 1-over 72.)
Now, he is two shots back of Lee Westwood, and Woods – all together now – has never won a major when he wasn’t staked to at least a share of the 54-hole lead.
Now, he is in the penultimate group, not the final pairing, and his fellow playing competitor is Masters winner Adam Scott, whose caddie, Steve Williams, is the man who was on the bag for 13 of Woods’ 14 majors until he was unceremoniously fired.
And it all can be traced back to that mis-hit second shot on Saturday.
Woods was plodding along, tied for the lead, when he arrived at his ball in the 17th fairway. His tee shot with a 3-wood left him well back of Westwood, but he had 238 yards to carry a set of cross bunkers short of the green. Fly those, and he had a reasonable chance to make a late birdie and create some separation from the rest of the field. Instead of hitting it “flat and flush” into a steady breeze, however, the ball spun high into the air from the upslope and went 225 yards.
Two shots behind, just like that.
Ever the optimist, Woods tried to spin it in his post-round session with the media: “I’m pleased where I’m at – I’m only two back,” he said. “There’s only one guy ahead of me.”
And that is true, of course. At 1-under 212, Woods is tied with Hunter Mahan and two shots behind Westwood. But the 3-wood shot was the very moment that Woods talked about earlier this week, when he attempted to explain why he’s 0-for-16 in the majors since summer 2008.
“I think it’s just a shot here and there,” Woods had said. “It’s making a key up-and-down here, or getting a good bounce there, capitalizing on an opportunity here and there.”
This was one of those opportunities – squandered.
After all, Woods was at his tactical best for much of the day. One of his only mistakes Saturday was a nuked 9-iron on the par-3 seventh that went 220 yards, leading to a bogey. Other than that, he found the rough only once (No. 11), and it didn’t cost him. Each hole, he would tee up an iron or fairway wood and send it screaming down the fairway.
Yes, he finally used his driver, on the par-5 fifth, perhaps to dust off the cobwebs or simply to duplicate his one-driver feat from Hoylake in 2006. But even the big stick found the short grass.
Most comparisons this week have been to that Open seven years ago at Royal Liverpool, and not just because Muirfield’s links have become brown and baked-out, too.
During that memorable week – when Woods hit only one driver all week, shot a final-round 67, won by two shots and hoisted his third claret jug – he missed 14 greens and eight fairways all week. This week, he has missed 16 greens and nine fairways through three rounds. In other words, he’s been similarly clinical with his ball-striking, but not quite as sharp.
Whether it will be good enough Sunday to topple Westwood – who is trying, at age 40, to shed the label of “Best Player Yet to Win a Major,” who is trying to prolong what has already been a historic British summer – remains to be seen.
“I’ve got 14 of these things, and I know what it takes to win it,” Woods said. “He’s won tournaments all over the world. He knows how to win golf tournaments. He’s two shots ahead, and we’re going to go out there and both compete and play.”
Those predicting a Westwood collapse might be disappointed. He’s leading the Open in putting (81 putts through three rounds), and as he showed Saturday (70), the former world No. 1 is one of the few players who can stand up to Woods (72) in a head-to-head showdown – and prevail. In their last 13 meetings, Westwood has the upper hand, 8-4-1.
But they aren’t paired together Sunday, and this is Woods’ best 54-hole position at a major since he was Y.E. Yang’d at the ’09 PGA.
Of course, much has changed since then, most dramatically his personal life, but Woods’ success at the majors – especially on the weekend – has taken a hit as well.
In his last 20 weekend major rounds, he has shot in the 60s only once, and has been under par just three times during that span.
There was the 74-72 weekend at last year’s PGA and the Sunday 73 at last year’s Open. There was the 75-73 weekend at last year’s U.S. Open, the late fade at the 2011 Masters (where he had the lead on the back nine Sunday) and the Sunday 75 at the 2010 U.S. Open.
How, Woods was asked, did those possible wins turn into frustrating losses?
He boiled down that complicated question to an overly simplistic answer – that each event, it came down to one or two shots, critical shots, shots that can happen early on Thursday or late on Sunday and make all the difference.
The man in the midst of the Grand Slump faced that kind of pivotal moment late Saturday afternoon, when he was tied for the lead, and his ball came up short, in the bunker. Now he is two shots back, in an uncomfortable group with his bitter, former caddie, and needing to come from behind to win a major for the first time in his career.
Woods was right – majors can come down to one shot here and there.