- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

HOYLAKE, England — The stage is set for an unforgettable finale at Hoylake.

The world’s No. 1 player, Tiger Woods, heads a brilliant board at the 135th British Open, carrying a one-stroke lead into the final round of an intriguing major with five high-profile players within two strokes of the 10-time major champion.

“There are a bunch of guys up there at the top of the board,” said Woods (13-under, 203), who stumbled to an indifferent, third-round 71 on the 7,258-yard, par-72 links to give a closing field new hope. “I thought I hit the ball great today, just take away my 3-putts, three of them in eight holes [Nos. 10, 14 and 17], and I would have a four-shot lead.”

In fact, Woods did have yet another solid day with his long irons as he stuck with his driver-free approach at Hoylake. But the putting woes that plagued him at the Masters and U.S. Open flared up again on Royal Liverpool’s testy, inconsistent greens. His 34 third-round putts marked one of the day’s poorest performances with the flat stick, a potential portend for a field desperately looking to snap his perfect 10-for-10 record when tied or leading majors after 54 holes.

“Stats don’t lie; obviously, he’s a pretty good front-runner,” said Chris DiMarco, who is one stroke behind Woods. “Usually, he has a five- or six-shot lead. Tomorrow he has a one-shot lead. Anything can happen with a one-shot lead.”

That’s particularly true given half of the world’s top-10 players are poised just beneath Woods on the leader board. It’s particularly true given Woods’ extremely conservative, 2-iron game plan, which routinely leaves him much longer approaches into greens than his fellow competitors. And it’s particularly true given Hoylake features four par-5s and has been bleeding birdies since Thursday.

For those wondering if Hoylake can be had by an aggressive player willing to challenge the layout’s treacherous cross-bunkers with driver from the tee, consider yesterday’s performance from Sergio Garcia (204). The 26-year-old Spaniard blasted his way around the front nine in 29 strokes, just one off the British Open record, and came home in a course record-tying 65 strokes.

“It was really close to being a really special round,” said Garcia, who boasts 10 top-10s in majors but is still seeking his breakthrough victory. “I felt I could have easily made more birdies on the back. I just missed holing putts at the 10th, 15th, and 17th and left a little one short at the 11th. Still, 65 is a great round anytime, and in the third round of a major, it’s even better.”

Despite his rousing major debut at Medinah in the 1999 PGA Championship, when a runner-up finish to Woods at the age of 19 promised future greatness, Garcia has a pedestrian final-round track record in the majors, averaging 72.45 strokes on Slam Sundays. He simply has never been able to recapture his Medinah magic, the fairway-skipping exuberance that nearly made him the first teenage major champion since people stopped playing the game in tweed topcoats.

“We love being in this position. It’s where we enjoy it the most,” said Garcia, whose run of Open form comes in the midst of a poor season plagued by back troubles. “What I’m going to do or at least try to do tomorrow is go out there and do the same things I did today, just enjoy it as much as possible, commit to all my shots if I can, and whatever happens … happens.”

Perhaps the most dangerous players perched under Woods are Ernie Els (204) and Jim Furyk (205), a pair who already feature major uprisings on their resumes.

Els struck the ball dreadfully with his irons yesterday, hitting only 10 greens but salvaged a 71 thanks to some clutch putting and an array of extraordinary chips and pitches.

“You’re not always going to have your best stuff and you have to find a way of scoring. That’s what I did today,” said Els, who is looking to add a second claret jug (2002) to his pair of U.S. Open titles (1994 and 1997). “With so many in contention it looks like one heck of a final day … I’ve got a number in mind. We’ll see what the weather is tomorrow and hopefully we can shoot a low one.”

Furyk tossed a 66 on the board yesterday and could be the favorite to menace Woods given his superb season, which includes a victory (Wachovia Championship) and six other top-10 finishes.

But all the day’s pressure falls on Woods, as he tries extend his perfect record from the front and match Walter Hagen on the Slam roster (11), leaving nobody between himself and golf’s majordomo, Jack Nicklaus (18).

“I’ve done it before, and that’s the thing,” Woods said of his streak from the pole position. “If you won before doing it that way, it always gives you confidence to know you can do that again.”

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