- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006

HOYLAKE, England — Conventional wisdom suggests that the 135th British Open ended when the sun dipped below the Dee Estuary last night.

Such is Tiger Woods’ aura of invincibility when he holds the midpoint lead at a major championship.

Woods, who at 12 under holds a one stroke lead over Ernie Els, is a perfect 6-for-6 in such situations in the Slams.

“I’m not here with the jug,” Woods joked when asked if he thought the tournament was over. “Unless there’s some kind of a rain storm coming in and it’s canceled after two days, we have a long way to go.”

Sure, there’s 36 holes left at Hoylake. And, theoretically, anything can happen, particularly on a benign links absolutely hemorrhaging birdies. But it’s difficult to quibble with the record books, and history screams that when Woods has a lead or a share of the lead heading into the weekend at a major, then everybody else is simply swinging for silver.

Sooner or later, however, that streak will come to an end.

That’s no knock on Tiger; it’s a nod to inevitability.

At some point, Woods is going to fail to consummate a 36-hole lead at a major. It’s happened in regular tour events six times in 29 such circumstances. And eventually, it will happen in a major.

Some wondered if Woods’ streak of consecutive made cuts on the PGA Tour would ever end. It did. After more than seven years of outrageously consistent excellence spanning 142 events, Woods finally missed the cut at last year’s Byron Nelson Championship.

Some wondered if Woods would ever miss a major cut as a professional. But after surviving the weekend axe in 39 consecutive majors, a streak that stretched back to his amateur days at the 1996 Masters, the 30-year-old Woods finally stumbled in a Slam last month at Winged Foot.

And his streak as an unblemished major front-runner will fall some day, as well. It could fall in galling fashion, as it almost did at last year’s Masters, when Woods finished bogey-bogey before prevailing in a playoff against Chris DiMarco.

But more than likely, given Woods’ track record when clenching the leader’s bit, it will come as the result of another player’s heroics; Bob May, the game’s least likely David, almost felled golf’s goliath at the 2000 PGA Championship.

The question is are we going to witness such a landmark moment in Tiger’s career this weekend?

The oddsmakers would respond in the negative. But Tiger’s extremely conservative game plan at Hoylake certainly teases the imagination. Unlike most players in the field, including Els, Woods is plotting his way around the 7,258-yard, par-72 links almost exclusively with a 2-iron. In two days at Hoylake, he has hit two drivers.

This approach takes out of play the layout’s treacherous cross-bunkers, which typically dissect the fairways at about the 300-yard mark. But it also leaves Woods much longer approaches than many of his competitors, putting a heap of pressure on his accuracy and ball control with his long irons. Woods was more than up to the challenge yesterday, holing a 4-iron for eagle at the 14th and hitting 16 greens despite his longer second shots.

“I really felt like I controlled my ball flight,” Woods said of his precision with the long-irons yesterday. “I really felt like I was able to shape the ball both ways and really control my traj[ectory]. Sometimes it was higher than others, sometimes really low. But I was able to hit the golf ball on the flight that I wanted to.”

If Hoylake gets a little wind on the weekend, controlling that flight will become more difficult, particularly if Woods is trying to hold Hoylake’s marble greens with 4- and 5-irons. For another, bolder player feeling more comfortable and confident with his driver, like perhaps Els, playing in that same wind with 8- and 9-iron approaches would be considerably easier.

It’s important to remember that Woods’ plan of attack at Hoylake is extremely conservative, opening the door for a more aggressive player experiencing a vein of form with the driver to catch him.

The second bit of hope for the field lies in history. As the only other player in the greatest-ever argument, Tiger and the legendary Jack Nicklaus have shared an almost eerie number of career parallels. Nicklaus was 7-for-9 in majors in which he led or shared the lead after 36 holes.

The Golden Bear’s first stumble in that department came at the 1967 British Open … in the game’s last trip to Hoylake, when Argentina’s Roberto de Vicenzo chased down Nicklaus on the weekend.

The next days will unravel whether that parallel qualifies as omen or coincidence. But sooner or later, a front-running hiccup from Woods is forthcoming. And Els is certainly a more capable major maven than de Vicenzo.

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