GULLANE, Scotland – For the first time in years, Tiger Woods held the outright weekend lead in a major on Saturday.
The moment came at approximately 3:54 p.m. Scotland time, when British Open co-leader Miguel Angel Jimenez bogeyed the second hole and left Woods alone atop the leaderboard at 3-under par.
That lasted for roughly 11 minutes.
Not even long enough for Woods to enjoy it, or perhaps even know about it. Certainly not long enough to convince the world that the former ruler of golf was back.
By 4:05 p.m., Woods had bogeyed the par-3 fourth hole, dropping back into a tie for the lead. And from that point on it was just another day-long battle to withstand the rigors of Muirfield.
By the time it was over, Woods had signed his name to a one-over 72, leaving him tied for second with Hunter Mahan and two shots behind his Saturday playing partner, Lee Westwood. Tiger is a stroke farther back than he was at the start of the day, but the field of contenders was further thinned by a course with a merciless setup.
“I’m pleased where I’m at,” he said.
Yes, Woods has a chance to end his five-year drought without a major. A good chance. But he will have to do what he’s never done before (come from behind on Sunday), and will have to do it with far less of the arsenal that was once at his command.
On Saturday, Woods avoided the weekend dysfunction that has derailed him in other majors over the previous five years. But he also avoided assuming command of the tournament – a staple of his glory days.
The biggest reasons why are the biggest differences in his game from the run of 14 major championships: Tiger couldn’t make putts and can’t trust his driver here, which leaves him at a disadvantage on par-5s.
After holing a 20-foot birdie putt on the second hole, he didn’t make anything of any significant length over the next 16 holes. Several birdie putts – and one par putt on No. 17 – were way off-line and never had a chance of going in. There were a couple that skirted the edge, but not many.
When you hit 13 out of 14 fairways and 14 out of 18 greens in regulation, the expectation is better than an over-par round — even on a course playing this hard. Woods’ pedestrian putting kept him from taking advantage of his spectacular iron play.
“I had a couple opportunities to make a couple putts,” he said. “I just didn’t do it.”
Instead it was Westwood, of all chronically wayward putters, who created some magic with the flat stick. The Brit rolled in a spectacular eagle putt from off the green on No. 5, then dropped a couple huge ones late.
The 16th and 17th holes swung an entertaining, back-and-forth day in Westwood’s favor.
Leading by a stroke on the par-3 16th, Westwood yanked a 4-iron miserably offline, dropping it in deep rough on the front left of the hole. ESPN golf analyst Andy North took one look at it and said, “His lie is terrible.”
“Worst lie I’ve found all week,” Westwood said. “… Looking at the lie, it had gone right down to the bottom in a bit of a hole. There weren’t many options – well, not good options, anyway.”
Westwood stood over the ball and took five practice swings, trying to figure out how to extricate it. When he hit it, the ball didn’t go far – about five feet out of the tall grass before rolling back down onto the short grass. From there, Westwood putted it up the hill, but it stopped 20 feet short.
Woods, by contrast, had a very makeable 20-footer for birdie after dropping a delicate iron shot through a gaggle of squabbling seagulls on the green. This looked like the moment where Tiger would take over – in position for a birdie, while Westwood was staring at a double bogey.
But Woods missed yet another putt, taking par. And then Westwood dropped his bogey putt, producing a roar from a gallery that was ecstatic over his great escape.
“That was probably the biggest momentum thing I did all day, walking off there with a bogey,” Westwood said. “I was pleased to make four. But that’s what’s been missing, making those putts.”
With both men tied for the lead, the 583-yard, par-5 17th produced a two-shot swing that altered the complexion of Sunday.
Woods, who has not used his driver all week, was short off the tee but in the fairway. Westwood hit driver and piped it at least 60 yards past his playing partner.
Tiger was left with 239 yards to carry the bunkers that guard against rolling second shots to the green, and when he failed to hit the ball flush it dropped in one of the traps. His blast-out was 50 yards short of the green, and his fourth shot landed 15 feet from the pin.
By contrast, Westwood cranked a 3-wood over the bunkers that swallowed Woods, then pitched to within a foot of Tiger’s ball. The resulting putting contest was no contest.
Woods blasted his par putt left and hard, never scaring the cup, and took a bogey. Westwood rolled in his second clutch putt in as many holes for birdie.
Suddenly, an accomplished 40-year-old who has been in contention for several majors without winning was given a two-shot cushion, and was spared playing with Woods for the second straight day. Westwood will play with Mahan, who also is searching for his first major.
Tiger, meanwhile, will be paired with Adam Scott – and with Scott’s caddie. That would be Steve Williams, who was on the bag for the majority of Tiger’s dominant run. Their parting was less than amicable, which will add some awkwardness to the pairing.
A second day of Woods vs. Westwood in the final pairing at baked, windswept Muirfield would have been ideal. Maybe not the sequel to Watson and Nicklaus trading birdies for 36 holes in the “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry in 1977, but the “Struggle in the Sun” would have made for compelling theater.
Tiger’s bogey on 17 threw that on the scrap heap.
But he has a chance to create some compelling new theater Sunday, by doing what even glory-days Tiger could not do: rally from the opening tee to win.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of it. I’ve been in this position before, in the past five years, and I’ve been in that hunt and in that mix. I’m in it again. Hopefully tomorrow I can play well and win the tournament.”
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