GULLANE, Scotland – On the 71st and final stroke of a challenging Friday at Muirfield, Tiger Woods finally had a moment.
His 10-foot putt on the 18th hole rolled delicately toward the cup, then dropped. Woods swept his Nike Method putter into the air in celebration – the first real show of emotion from him all day.
This was a round Woods survived, not a round in which he thrived. There were two missed putts of four feet or less on the front nine, robbing him of momentum. There were a number of steely par putts on the back nine, staving off bogeys.
But on a day of building breezes and fickle green conditions, survival was enough. In fact, survival was great.
By shooting even par and remaining at 2-under for the British Open, Tiger did what he had to do Friday. Kept himself in contention. Kept the carnage to a minimum. Kept the pot bunkers and tall grass and wind-related disasters at bay.
By the time Woods was done, he was tied for the lead in the clubhouse. Over the course of the day he inched up the leaderboard, very much in contention. He'd endured the Muirfield massacre.
“I said to him on the 18th green, ‘That was a clinic the last two days,’ " said playing partner Graeme McDowell.
It was not the classic clinic of yesteryear. This was a clinic on prudent self-preservation.
“I’m in a good spot,” Woods said.
Tiger knew the carnage that was to come after him Friday afternoon. With an early tee time, he was on the course before the winds kicked up and the greens further dried out. Some were almost slow early in his round, due to the water the R&A put on them last night to quell the player whining that erupted after the first round.
But with no rain in the forecast and very little humidity in the air, the course will further resemble concrete as we go along.
So the weekend game plan likely calls for more of the same from the world’s No. 1 player: hang in there and let those around you screw it up.
“Just continue plodding along,” Tiger said. “Just continue trying to be patient, putting the ball in the right spots …"
Not a terribly sexy game plan, but this is the modern reality for Tiger Woods. Grinding out low-thrill, low-risk rounds of golf is what he needs to do to contend, especially on courses such as this that have shown a proclivity for devouring the best players in the world.
The days of grabbing a tournament by the throat in the first round, demoralizing the competition in rounds two and three and turning Sunday into a glorified victory lap are long gone. The days of boldly piping massive drives past awestruck competitors are largely over as well. Most of his 14 majors were won that way, but that’s five years gone by.
Here and now, short-knocker Tiger and his iron game are just going to have to stay in the hunt and hope to make a play or two when the opportunities present themselves.
Woods’ driver has been as mythical as the Loch Ness monster this week. Someone asked him how many times he’s used it, and he shot back, “I hit about eight to 10.”
That didn’t sound right, so he was asked where.
“On the range,” came the deadpan response.
Fact is, there have been no drivers struck by Woods this week, and even the 3-wood usage was curtailed from Thursday to Friday. After snapping off a screaming hook with the wood to open the Open on the first hole Thursday, Tiger went with an iron Friday.
He split the fairway with it, which was a recurring theme in Round Two. Woods was only in the tall grass once all round, which was a clear indication that he’d traded length for accuracy on the baked Muirfield track.
“I had to double-check with Joey [La Cava], his caddie, that the driver head cover actually had a driver underneath it,” McDowell said. “It actually hasn’t seen the light of day, not even close.
“[Woods is] playing the course very conservatively, using his iron play to devastating effect. Very impressive.”
The Woods game plan harkens back to the last Open he won. That was in 2006, at Royal Liverpool, under very similar conditions.
The course in Liverpool was fried by record temperatures. Woods shelved the long-ball ego to navigate his way across the runways/fairways with his irons instead of his driver.
The big difference there: Tiger led much of the way. He was a shot behind after the first round, then assumed control early the next day and never relinquished it. The greatest frontrunner in golf history was completely in his comfort zone throughout that weekend.
This tournament will not go down that way. If Woods is going to win his first major in five years, he’ll have to continue fighting his way back through a thinning field of contenders.
“I’ve put myself [in contention],” Woods said. “I just haven’t won.”
Tiger Woods put himself in contention again this Thursday and Friday. Now we’ll see whether he can finally close the deal.
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