GULLANE, Scotland – This much seems certain, one way or another a major drought will end at the Dust Bowl Open on Sunday.
With respect to the pack, this has all the markings of a two-man race – one man looking to get off a five-year major schnied, the other hoping to reach the mountain after 40 years of major misses – on a golf course that is showing no signs of letting up despite the R&A’s best efforts with hoses.
He would never say as much, but when Tiger Woods sets out on Sunday in the penultimate group at the 142nd Open Championship it will mark his best chance to date to win what has turned out to be his most elusive major – No. 15.
Woods will start the final turn two strokes behind Lee Westwood, but if Saturday’s spell was any indication that could change in a matter of minutes.
Consider that Saturday’s action seemed to turn with each gust of wind. Through three holes Woods found himself two shots clear of Westwood and pacing the field, four holes later it was the Englishman three shots clear of the world No. 1.
Call it a Muirfield minute, made possible by a crusty course blown so dry that the R&A may want to consider banning lighters and matches for fear the ancient links will accidentally combust.
Westwood emerged from the dust late Saturday, with birdies on two of his last four holes for a 68 and a 3-under total. It was almost enough to make one forget the lifetime of heartache Westwood has endured at the majors.
“I've had lots of chances, sometimes I've played well, other times I've played not too well,” Westwood said. “I know what it takes. Even though I haven't won a major, I know what it takes to win one. It's just a case of going out there tomorrow and having the confidence in my game, which I've got, and putting it to the test.”
As much focus has been on Westwood’s recent move to Sean Foley’s stable and a series of impromptu lessons from Ian Baker-Finch, it has been his attitude that has steadied his every step this week on the East Lothian links.
That was particularly evident on Saturday paired with Woods. Each time the game’s alpha male took a step in his direction, Westwood coolly countered. But on Sunday he will be playing history, as well as a bouncy links and the best player of his generation.
Westwood has finished in the top 3 at every major and his history of heartache includes a runner-up at the 2010 Masters and Open Championship and ties for third at the ’11 U.S. Open and ’12 Masters.
“You try and picture yourself winning the Open Championship tonight, but forget about it tomorrow and go and tee off down the first, and focus on it in the middle of the fairways with the first tee shot and then go from there,” he said late Saturday.
And besides, it’s not as though Woods’ Grand Slam record since 2008 is the stuff of legend. In his quest to win his 15th major, Woods has six top-10 finishes in his last 16 majors, but with each try the pressure has built.
There’s also the reality that Woods has never won a major when trailing after 54 holes, but then he hasn’t played a venue so uniquely suited to his skills since 2006 at Hoylake.
The brown and bouncy links have proven to be the perfect canvas for Woods, who has lived on a steady diet of fairway woods and long irons off tees – he hit his only driver this week on the par-5 fifth on Saturday – and near flawless ball-striking from the parched turf.
“I’m only two back with one guy ahead of me and we’ll see what they do tomorrow,” said Woods, whose round was marred late when his second shot into the par-5 17th hole “spun” into the cool wind and into a cross bunker.
Late Friday, the question du jour was who had the most pressure on them on Day 3, Woods or Westwood? But on the eve of the final round it will be who will handle the pressure on Sunday, because it will be inevitable.
“I’ve got 14 of these things,” Woods said. “I know what it takes to do it, but it’s not just us. There are a lot of guys who have a chance.”
Given Saturday’s turbulent leaderboard, Woods may have a point.
There are 16 players within six strokes of the lead, a margin of error at Muirfield that can be covered in a few holes if Saturday’s action was any indication.
Among the supporting cast, Hunter Mahan should draw the most attention following a round-of-the-day 68 on Saturday to move to 1 under par and earn a spot in the final tee time for the second consecutive major.
Although Mahan came up short last month at Merion, the ballstriker had the look of a player who had paid his dues and was ready to make that final major step.
“It can be overwhelming at times being in the last group,” said Mahan, who has one top-10 in eight Open starts. “You have to believe before you can win. I think you actually have to see it happening.”
Angel Cabrera, whose two PGA Tour wins are both majors, would also be considered a serious contender despite his third-round 73 that left him in a large group at 1 over; along with Zach Johnson, fresh off his own heartbreaking overtime loss last Sunday at the John Deere Classic, whose game also seems perfectly suited for the links exam.
All eyes, however, will be on Westwood and Woods, both playing for more than a date with the engraver and the claret jug. They will be separated by 10 minutes and a few hundred yards on Sunday at Muirfield, but this will be a mano-y-mano match. The only question is who blinks first?