Sunday, July 8, 2007

As he walked down the 18th fairway at Congressional Country Club late yesterday afternoon, Tiger Woods couldn’t help but look around. Afterward, he was asked if he was checking out the large, supportive galleries that came out to see him play in the tournament he is hosting, the AT&T National.

“No,” Woods deadpanned, “I was ready to throw my putter into the water. ‘What part of the lake can I throw this thing in?’ ”

Woods quickly noted that he was kidding and that he was, in fact, scanning the crowd.

But who knows? The offending putter might yet have ended up in some murky depths, or been wrapped around an unsuspecting tree.

“It’s frustrating, it really is,” Woods said after several putts narrowly missed the cup, leaving the world’s No. 1 golfer with a 1-under 69 and tied for eighth place with a 2-under 208, seven strokes behind leader Stuart Appleby heading into todays final round.

Woods, who birdied the final three holes Friday to finish with a second-round 66 and vault into contention after Thursday’s 73, began the third round with a birdie. A charge seemed imminent, and Woods seemed to enjoy the walk down the first fairway as adoring fans screamed his name.

But his mood quickly soured. A birdie putt at No. 2 eased past the cup, and putts on three and four lipped out. The rest of the day pretty much went the same way. Woods managed just one more birdie — on 16. On 17, he missed (narrowly, of course) a 6-footer. More than once, he dropped his putter in sheer exasperation as the ball went awry.

“I felt that, realistically, I should be 3- or 4-under par through four, and I was only one,” Woods said. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m still in the ballgame. There’s a long way to go. If I make three or four more from here on out, I’ll be just fine.’ Which didn’t happen.”

Adding to Woods’ angst was that he believed he was striking the ball just fine. It might be heartening to the rest of the field that Woods can occasionally be average — not just messing up, but complaining about the ones that got away.

“I hit the ball well all day,” he said. “I really hit some good shots, and I made nothing for birdie except for the first hole [and 16]. I made a few par putts here and there, which was nice, to keep the momentum going. But I hit so many good putts that looked like they were going to go in, but just didn’t fall.”

Woods’ partner, Kevin Stadler, agreed.

“He played great,” Stadler said. “He played fantastic tee to green. He really seemed to putt pretty well, and holed nothing. I’m sure he’s looking forward to [today], because if he had another inch, it would have been a 62, [63], [64], I think.”

Said Woods: “I turned what I thought was a 63 or a 64 into a 69, very smoothly. The way I hit the golf ball today and the putts I hit, it could have been a low one today.”

It was up to the far-less acclaimed Stadler, the son of tour veteran Craig Stadler, to provide the pairings highlight of the day, a hole-in-one on the par 3, 187-yard 13th.

“You know, it was interesting, because Kevin and I didn’t see it,” Woods said. “He hit it. We started walking. He was talking to his caddie. All of a sudden, I watched him, he’s trying to talk to his caddie, I’m trying to write down scores for Kevin and it goes in and he says, ‘What happened?’ It was kind of a shocker.”

Almost like the ones that got away.

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