- Associated Press - Sunday, July 18, 2010

ST. ANDREWS (AP) - His day was effectively over by the fourth hole, where Tiger Woods needed two tries to get out of a pot bunker. What followed was something rarer still: Woods simply playing out the string in a major.

It’s been a half-dozen years since he came down the back nine on Sunday in a grand slam event with absolutely nothing at stake. With good pal Lucas Glover in tow, Woods played fast, casually and laughed a lot, looking to all the world like a guy resigned to his fate. Scolds no doubt will point to his performance here as more evidence that all those romps off the course sapped nearly all of his strength and resolve on it.

Woods won the last two times the Open stopped off at St. Andrews, once by a record margin, and the best he could muster this time around was a tie for 23rd. Coming on the heels of fourth-place finishes at the Masters and the U.S. Open, two other major championship venues where he also won by record margins, they’d have you believe he’s become Samson in golf spikes _ after the haircut.

But Woods is going to make them look foolish soon enough.

Only he knows where his head is at and his game remains a work in progress. Woods still can’t putt, he’s so-so with his irons and most troubling, he’s back to making the big mistakes that produce momentum-killing double-bogeys, as he did at No. 4 Sunday. Yet he hasn’t hit so many tee shots this sweetly in years.

“It’s ironic that as soon as I start driving it on a string, I miss everything,” he said. “Maybe I should go back to spraying it all over the lot and make everything.”

Perhaps more important, though, he’s most of the way back to being regarded as a golfer instead of a pariah _ at least on the course. As his comfort level rises, so does his confidence. The tabloids here did their best all week daring fans to give Woods the English version of a Bronx cheer.

Instead, he drew applause from every corner of St. Andrews and saw nothing more provocative than three woman who shed their jackets on one tee to reveal matching Tiger-print blouses _ they were hired by an Irish bookie looking for publicity _ yet even they turned out to be on his side.

Not long ago, with Woods in the middle of a winning streak that positively spooked his rivals, Stewart Cink wondered what they’d find if they sliced him open.

“Maybe,” Cink mused, “nuts and bolts.”

But you only had to see Woods talking about his reception on this chilly, wind-swept coast to know how relieved he was.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the lead, but still it was very warm. … For them to be as warm as they were,” Woods said, then let his voice trail off for a moment.

The question is how long the galleries will feel that way, considering how much ground he’s already given up.

This, after all, was supposed to be his year. He was shut out of the majors in 2009, but the first three grand slam events were at courses where Woods had won seven of his career total of 14 _ Augusta, Pebble Beach and the Old Course.

Few doubted he’d be a step or two closer to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 by the time his jet left Scotland in the distance. Then his SUV went pin-balling down the driveway hours after what must have been a tense Thanksgiving dinner and changed everything.

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