Reversal Of Fortune
Els, who finished second in each of the year's first two majors, shot an eight-birdie, two-bogey 6-under-par 66 to lead Woods and Steve Flesch by one shot. The 30-year-old South African carded four birdies and one bogey on both the outward and inward halves, with his final birdie coming courtesy of a 10-foot putt at the treacherous 'Road Hole' 17th.
This is the first time Els has led after any round in a major championship since he won the 1997 U.S. Open. Last week, he broke a 17-month winless streak at the Standard Life Loch Lomond. He seems to have carried that momentum from Glasgow to St. Andrews.
'After last week's win, I feel on form,' Els said. 'I have a lot of confidence now.'
In reference to the last time he and Woods did battle, Els said: 'If he beats me by 15 shots from now, there would be an inquiry.'
While Els is trying to add the Claret Jug to his pair of U.S. Open trophies, Woods is in search of the career Grand Slam. Woods, who won the '97 Masters, '99 PGA Championship and 2000 U.S. Open, started slowly, but caught fire in the middle of his round. Tiger parred his first eight holes on Thursday, before playing his next seven in 5-under. His first birdie of the day came at the 9th. He then picked up another at the 10th. Then another at the 13th. And at the 14th. And at the 15th. Woods finished the day as he began, with a string of pars.
On a mild, breezy day in Scotland, Woods only found trouble once while playing around the Old Course. At the 17th, Woods hit his tee shot into the left knee-high grass. With all his strength, Tiger chopped through the hay and forced his ball to the front of the green, from where he got up and down for par.
'I figured anything in red would be good,' said Woods, 'and I've accomplished that.'
Woods is trying to become the 5th player, and youngest at 24, to win the career Grand Slam. He looks to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, who are the only players in golf history to capture each of the four current majors.
While Woods was saving par early, his former college teammate, Notah Begay III, was blistering the course. Seven-under through 16 holes, Begay entered the 17th with the lead. But just as Woods would eventually do, Begay found the rough off the tee. However, unlike Woods, Begay hit his second shot into the Swilken Burn. To the delight of the crowd, Begay rolled up his pants, stepped into the water (shoes still on) and played his ball where it lay. He did manage to get his ball out, but eventually made triple-bogey. Begay also bogeyed the 18th to shoot a 3-under-par 69.
'That was more fun than taking a drop,' Begay said of his shot out of the burn. 'It wasn't a bad start. I wish it could have been better.'
Begay is seeking his third consecutive PGA TOUR victory. He won his last two starts at the Fed Ex St. Jude Classic and the Canon Greater Hartford Open.
At 5-under, Woods is tied with Flesch, who is making his first career Open appearance. The two lead a number of other players by one, including Dennis Paulson, Tom Lehman, Shigeki Maruyama, Padraig Harrington, Scott Dunlap, Sergio Garcia and Ian Garbutt. Garbutt made four straight threes on the front and was 7-under through 12 holes, but bogeyed the 13th, 15th and 17th to finish the day at 4-under-par.
Garcia was 21 shots better on Thursday than he was a year ago at the Open. In 1999, Garcia shot 89-83 to miss the cut at Carnoustie. St. Andrews proved to be more friendly in the first round. The 20-year-old Spaniard chipped in for eagle on the par-5 14th en route to his 4-under-par 68.
Paul Lawrie opened his title defense with a career-high 41 putts in a 6-over-par 78. 1999 runners-up Justin Leonard and Jean Van de Velde are at 2-under and 1-under, respectively. John Daly, who won the last time the Open was contended at St. Andrews in 1995 shot 76. Jack Nicklaus, playing in perhaps his final Open Championship, shot 77.
Rose: T-2 finish renewed my love of The Open
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Rose made the cut on the number at The Open and was out for an early Saturday morning stroll at Carnoustie when, all of a sudden, he started putting together one great shot after another.
There was no pressure. No one had expected anything from someone so far off the lead. Yet Rose shot 30 on the final nine holes to turn in 7-under 64, the lowest round of the championship. By day’s end he was five shots behind a trio of leaders that included Jordan Spieth.
Rose followed the 64 with a Sunday 69 to tie for second place, two shots behind winner Francesco Molinari. His 133 total over the weekend was the lowest by a shot, and for a moment he thought he had a chance to hoist the claret jug, until Molinari put on a ball-striking clinic down the stretch with birdies on 14 and 18.
“I just think having made the cut number, it’s a great effort to be relevant on the leaderboard on Sunday,” said Rose, who collected his third-career runner-up in a major. He’s also finished 12th or better in all three majors this year.
In the final round, Rose was well off the pace until his second shot on the par-5 14th hole hit the pin. He had a tap-in eagle to move to 5 under. Birdie at the last moved him to 6 under and made him the clubhouse leader for a few moments.
“It just proves to me that I can play well in this tournament, that I can win The Open,” Rose said. “When I’m in the hunt, I enjoy it. I play my best golf. I don’t back away.
“That was a real positive for me, and it renewed the love of The Open for me.”
Woods does everything but win
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a proud man who spent the majority of his prime scoffing at silver linings and small victories, Tiger Woods needed little cajoling to look at the bright side Sunday at Carnoustie.
Sure, after taking the solo lead at The Open with nine holes to go, the first words out of Woods’ mouth were that he was “a little ticked off at myself” for squandering an opportunity to capture his 15th major title, and his first in more than a decade. And that immediate reaction was justified: In the stiffest winds of the week, he played his last eight holes in 2 over, missed low on a 6-footer on the final green and wound up in a tie for sixth, three shots behind his playing partner, Francesco Molinari.
“Today was a day,” Woods said, “that I had a great opportunity.”
But here’s where we take a deep breath.
Tiger Woods led the freakin’ Open Championship with nine holes to play.
Imagine typing those words three months ago. Six months ago. Nine months ago. Twelve months ago.
The scenario was improbable.
At this time last year, Woods was only a few months removed from a Hail Mary fusion surgery; from a humiliating DUI arrest in which he was found slumped behind the wheel of his car, with five drugs in his system; from a month-long stay in a rehab clinic to manage his sleep medications.
Just last fall, he’d admitted that he didn’t know what the future held. Playing a major, let alone contending in one, seemed like a reasonable goal.
This year he’s showed signs of softening, of being kinder and gentler. He appeared more eager to engage with his peers. More appreciative of battling the game’s young stars inside the ropes. More likely to express his vulnerabilities. Now 42, he finally seemed at peace with accepting his role as an elder statesman.
One major, any major, would be the most meaningful title of his career, and he suggested this week that his best chance would come in an Open, where oldies-but-goodies Tom Watson (age 59) and Greg Norman (53) have nearly stolen the claret jug over the past decade.
But success at this Open, on the toughest links in the rota?
“Just need to play some cleaner golf, and who knows?” he shrugged.
Many analysts howled at Woods’ ultra-conservative strategy across the early rounds here at big, brawny and brutish Carnoustie. He led the field in driving accuracy but routinely left himself 200-plus yards for his approach shots, relying heavily on some vintage iron play. Even par through 36 holes, he stepped on the gas Saturday, during the most benign day for scoring, carding a 66 to get within striking distance of the leaders.
Donning his traditional blood-red shirt Sunday, Woods needed only six holes to erase his five-shot deficit. Hearing the roars, watching WOODS rise on the yellow leaderboards, it was as though we’d been transported to the mid-2000s, to a time when he’d play solidly, not spectacularly, and watch as his lesser opponents crumbled. On the same ancient links that Ben Hogan took his lone Open title, in 1953, four years after having his legs crushed in a head-on crash with a Greyhound bus, Woods seemed on the verge of scripting his own incredible comeback.
Because Jordan Spieth was tumbling down the board, the beginning of a birdie-less 76.
Rory McIlroy was bogeying two of his first five holes.
Xander Schauffele was hacking his way through fescue.
Once Woods hit one of the shots of the championship on 10 – hoisting a 151-yard pitching wedge out of a fairway bunker, over a steep lip, over a burn, to 20 feet – the outcome seemed preordained.
“For a while,” McIlroy conceded, “I thought Tiger was going to win.”
So did Woods. “It didn’t feel any different to be next to the lead and knowing what I needed to do,” he said. “I’ve done it so many different ways. It didn’t feel any different.”
But perhaps it’s no coincidence that once Woods took the lead for the first time, he frittered it away almost immediately. That’s what happened Saturday, when he shared the lead on the back nine and promptly made bogey. On Sunday, he drove into thick fescue on 11, then rocketed his second shot into the crowd, ricocheting off a fan’s shoulder, and then another’s iPhone, and settling in more hay. He was too cute with his flop shot, leaving it short of the green, and then missed an 8-footer for bogey. He followed it up on 12 with another misadventure in the rough, leading to a momentum-killing bogey. He’d never again pull closer than two shots.
“It will be interesting to see going forward, because this was his first taste of major championship drama for quite a while,” McIlroy said. “Even though he’s won 14, you have to learn how to get back.”
Over the daunting closing stretch, Woods watched helplessly as Molinari, as reliable as the tide coming in off the North Sea, plodded his way to victory. With Woods’ hopes for a playoff already slim, Molinari feathered a wedge to 5 feet on the closing hole. Woods marched grim-faced to the bridge, never turning around to acknowledge his playing partner’s finishing blow. He waved his black cap and raised his mallet-style putter to a roaring crowd – knowledgeable fans who were appreciative not just of Woods making his first Open start since 2015, but actually coming close to winning the damn thing.
“Oh, it was a blast,” Woods would say afterward. “I need to try to keep it in perspective, because at the beginning of the year, if they’d have said you’re playing the Open Championship, I would have said I’d be very lucky to do that.”
Last weekend, Woods sat in a box at Wimbledon to watch Serena Williams contend for a 24th major title. Williams is one of the few athletes on the planet with whom Woods can relate – an aging, larger-than-life superstar who is fiercely competitive and adept at overcoming adversity. Woods is 15 months removed from a fourth back surgery on an already brittle body; Williams nearly secured the most prestigious championship in tennis less than a year after suffering serious complications during childbirth.
“She’ll probably call me and talk to me about it because you’ve got to put things in perspective,” Woods said. “I know that it’s going to sting for a little bit here, but given where I was to where I’m at now, I’m blessed.”
But Woods didn’t need to wait for that phone call to find some solace. Waiting for him afterward were his two kids, Sam, 11, and Charlie, 9, both of whom were either too young or not yet born when Tiger last won a major in 2008, when he was at the peak of his powers.
Choking up, Woods said, “I told them I tried, and I said, 'Hopefully you’re proud of your Pops for trying as hard as I did.' It’s pretty emotional, because they gave me some pretty significant hugs there and squeezed. I know that they know how much this championship means to me, and how much it feels good to be back playing again.
“To me, it’s just so special to have them aware, because I’ve won a lot of golf tournaments in my career, but they don’t remember any of them. The only thing they’ve seen is my struggles and the pain I was going through. Now they just want to go play soccer with me. It’s such a great feeling.”
His media obligations done, Woods climbed up the elevated walkway, on his way to the back entrance of the Carnoustie Golf Hotel & Spa. He was surrounded by his usual entourage, but also two new, younger additions to his clan.
Sam adhered to the strict Sunday dress code, wearing a black tank top and red shorts. But Charlie’s attire may have been even more appropriate. On the day his dad nearly authored the greatest sports story ever, he chose a red Nike T-shirt with a bold message emblazoned on the front, in big, block letters:
LOVE THE HATERS.
After this unbelievable performance, after Tiger Woods nearly won The Open, are there really any left?
Molinari hopes to inspire others as Rocca inspired him
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Francesco Molinari was 12 years old when Costantino Rocca came within a playoff of becoming Italy’s first major champion at the 1995 Open at St. Andrews.
He remembers being inspired by Rocca’s play and motivated by the notion that he could one day be the player who would bring home his country’s first Grand Slam title. As he reflected on that moment late Sunday at Carnoustie it sunk in what his victory at The Open might mean.
“To achieve something like this is on another level,” said Molinari, who closed with a final-round 69 for a two-stroke victory. “Hopefully, there were a lot of young kids watching on TV today, like I was watching Constantino in '95 coming so close. Hopefully, they will get as inspired as I was at the time, watching him vie for the claret jug.”
Molinari had already made plenty of headlines this year back home in Italy with victories at the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship, and the Quicken Loans National earlier this month on the PGA Tour.
A major is sure to intensify that attention. How much attention, however, may be contingent on Sunday’s finish at the German Grand Prix.
“It depends on if Ferrari won today. If they won, they'll probably get the headlines,” Molinari laughed. “But, no, obviously, it would be massive news. It was big news. The last round already was big news in Italy.”
Molinari won’t have any competition for the front page on Monday; Ferrari didn’t win the German Grand Prix.
Schauffele on close call: Nothing but a positive
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Playing in a final group at a major for the first time, Xander Schauffele awkwardly splashed out of three pot bunkers, went out in 40 and still somehow had a chance to win at Carnoustie.
Playing the 17th hole, tied with Francesco Molinari, Schauffele flared his approach shot into the right rough and couldn’t get up and down for par. He dropped one shot behind Molinari, and then two, after the Italian birdied the final hole.
Just like that, Schauffele was doomed to a runner-up finish at The Open.
“A little bit of disappointment,” he said. “Obviously when you don’t win, you’re disappointed. Hats off to Francesco. I looked up on 17 and saw he got to 8 under, which is just incredible golf and an incredible finish.”
Schauffele did well to give himself a chance. The 24-year-old was in the final group with Spieth, but both youngsters fell off the pace after rocky starts. The Tour’s reigning Rookie of the Year birdied the 14th but couldn’t convert a 15-footer on the treacherous 16th that would have given him a one-shot cushion.
“It’s going to go in the memory bank as a positive,” he said. “I had a chance to win a major championship. I was in the final group. I had to face a little bit of adversity early in the round, and I still gave myself a chance. Anyone can look at it however they want to, but I’m going to look at is as a positive moving forward and try to learn how to handle the situations a little better next time.”