ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Game on.
Just when it seemed Tiger Woods was poised to execute a redux of his 2000 rout and sprint away from the field at St. Andrews, golf’s titan tripped.
The 29-year-old superstar staggered around the legendary layout yesterday in 71 strokes, letting a host of marquee names back into the 134th British Open and setting up a suspense-promising final-round fray.
“He proved today that he’s not bulletproof,” Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie said, no doubt echoing the suddenly hopeful sentiments of the entire field after he outdueled Woods (70 to 71) in the day’s final pairing.
Though he sprayed his way around the 7,279-yard, par-72 patch of concrete better known as the Old Course, Woods did claw his way into red figures for the day and 12 under for the tournament with a point-blank birdie putt at the drivable 18th. But after a day he certainly would rather forget, the nine-time major champion now finds himself leading by just two over two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and by five or less over a stunning pack of elite players that includes Monty (9 under), two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (9 under), Spanish wonder Sergio Garcia (8 under), world No.2 Vijay Singh (7 under) and recent U.S. Open victor Michael Campbell (7 under).
“Yes, the game’s on a little bit now,” said Goosen, watching Woods flounder as the only one of the seven stars on the board who dodged freshening afternoon winds and profited with a morning 66.
All over the property, resignation turned to renewed vigor as Woods experienced a strikingly rare day of poor form as a front-runner. Coming into the event, Woods was 8-0 in majors in which he had led after 36 holes or more. So nobody expected anything but continued mastery from golf’s killer closer yesterday. What they got instead was perhaps the sloppiest ball-striking day he has experienced as a major rabbit.
“I hit one loose shot on No.6, blocked it out there and lost it in the gorse,” Woods said. “Otherwise, I hit it decent today.”
A planet’s worth of eyes saw differently. Woods was forced to declare his lie in the gorse bush unplayable, took a penalty stroke and ended up with a bogey at the sixth. But it was far from his only errant shot of the day. He hit another ball left into a gorse bush at the drivable ninth and was forced to take another unplayable. Regardless of his rosy spin on the day, two unplayables in nine holes is a bad day at the office for a rank amateur, much less the world’s most accomplished player.
But those two shots were far from his only errors on the day. He hit just eight of a possible 16 fairways, seemingly spending all day muscling balls out of what little hay there is on the Open rota’s most forgiving stretch of seaside sod. He hit just 11 greens despite the fact that four of the par 4s are drivable for him (Nos.9, 10, 12 and 18) and both of the par 5s (Nos.5 and 14) are easily reachable in two.
The fact of the matter is his 71 looked far worse, partly because the true par for Woods at St. Andrews is 66 or 67. And partly because he made all but one putt he faced under 10 feet, jarring particularly important midrange par putts at Nos.8, 13, 16 and 17.
If his driver carried him in the first two rounds, his putter saved him from a total disaster in the third. It’s no surprise he leads the event in putting through 54 holes. Yesterday’s 27-putt effort, including a load of two-putt pars from 40 feet or more, is the only reason he’s still atop the leader board.
And while reason and past performance still suggest golf’s most confident closer will rebound today and finish out his second claret jug conquest, Woods definitely lost some of his intimidation chits yesterday. He gave the field hope without pressure, and that’s a powerful tool.
“I know, as everyone else in this field, that Tiger has probably had his hiccup today, and he still got around under par,” said Montgomerie, who was given ovations from first tee to final putt as the adoring locals tried to drive their long-suffering native son one step closer to his first major title. “That said, I put myself in a position that if I play well tomorrow I can win this championship. I know that now. … I’ve got an opportunity here to win a major. There’s a seven-mile walk out there tomorrow, and if I can score 66 around here I have a chance. That’s the aim tomorrow.”
The 42-year-old from Glasgow is certainly the sentimental favorite heading into today’s finale. But he’s far from the only riveting story lurking on the board.
Like Montgomerie, Garcia is attempting to fling the major monkey from his back.
Then there’s Goosen, who certainly needs to be applauded for rebounding almost instantly from his stunning, final-round 81 from the pole position last month at Pinehurst. Many players would take months or even a full major season to recover from such a meltdown, if they recovered at all. Goosen seems to have put the incident behind him.
“I’m not determined to make up for the [U.S. Open finale],” Goosen said. “It was just one of those days. Everything I did was wrong. … But it’s over.”
And perhaps most intriguingly, there’s Olazabal, the 39-year-old Spaniard who only slid into the Open as an alternate when legendary countryman Seve Ballesteros pulled out Monday. Olazabal’s resume includes not only the two victories at the Masters (1994 and 1999) but a raft of clutch performances on perhaps golf’s most stressful stage in the Ryder Cup. Olazabal might not show up with the game to swap shots with Woods and fell golf’s goliath. But nobody should doubt his constitution.
“I’ve always said that I have no problems playing with Tiger,” said Olazabal, who will get his chance to prove it in today’s final pairing.