Friday, July 20, 2012
Patience serving Tiger Woods well
By Bob Harig ESPN.com
LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- From the time he arrived in northwest England on Sunday, it was clear Tiger Woods had a game plan for Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
He had fond memories of the place, having been low amateur here in 1996 and calling it one of his favorite courses on the Open Championship rota. He enjoyed the challenge of avoiding the numerous pitfalls of the old links. Without saying so, he appeared determined to put an end to his four-year major championship victory drought.
Part of the plan was to stay out of the numerous bunkers that give Royal Lytham its teeth. The wind was down and the course was soft, but getting into those hazards is, well, hazardous.
It obviously wasn't part of the plan when Woods' approach to the par-4 18th found a greenside bunker. His caddie, Joe LaCava, said the shot was one of his best of the day. But the wind played a factor, the ball drifted into the sand and ... uh-oh.
Then Woods holed the shot for a birdie.
Tiger Woods carded his second straight 3-under-par 67 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes on Friday. He is in third place after 36 holes, four shots behind Brandt Snedeker.
A thunderous roar echoed around the 18th green as Woods gave a fist pump. He had made his statement at the Open Championship.
Jokingly, it was mentioned to Woods that he should hit into more bunkers. Smiling, he said, "One for one."
That birdie was big. Instead of a tough par or maybe even a bogey, Woods finished his round with a birdie, giving him a 67 and getting him within four shots of leader Brandt Snedeker.
"It wasn't as hard as it may have looked," Woods said. "I was on the upslope. I could take out that steepness coming off the bunker and land the ball on the flat. So just threw it up there, and I played about a cup outside the left, and it landed on my spot and rolled to the right."
And into the cup.
That meant a move into third place, behind Snedeker and second-place Adam Scott. The significance is that in all of Woods' 14 major championship victories, he was no worse than fifth through 36 holes. In each of his three Open Championship wins, he shot 67 or better in Round 2.
Those are just numbers, but Woods' career is one filled with them. Staying within the parameters of his past success is at least a good sign.
"I'm very pleased at where I'm at," Woods said. "We're at the halfway point, and I'm right there in the mix. With the weather that's forecasted on Sunday and [Saturday], it's going to be a good weekend."
Woods was referring to the possibility of a windy Sunday at Royal Lytham, a potential big change from the first two days -- and something that is impossible to predict, given the faulty forecasts to this point.
Still, Woods has put himself in position behind one guy, Snedeker, who had never made the cut at the Open and another, Scott, who has yet to win a major and has been somewhat of a disappointment in the game's biggest championships.
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Then there is Woods' Saturday playing competitor, Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark, a winner earlier this year on the European Tour. It ought to be an interesting greeting on the first tee, as the two have never met. A birdie on the 18th hole put Olesen in the second-to-last group with Woods.
"He's been my idol for so many years, since I was 9 or 10," said Olesen, 22, who won the Sicilian Open. "So it's fantastic to have a chance to play with him. And I'm really looking forward to it."
Woods will be more concerned with continuing his strategy of hitting mostly irons off the tee, shaping shots into the fairway and avoiding the rough.
For the second straight day, he hit 13 of 14 fairways. He also hit 14 of 18 greens, one off Thursday's pace. He needed just 28 putts, aided by holing out from the 18th-hole bunker.
They were two remarkably similar rounds, perhaps the only negatives being Woods' inability to birdie the par 5s and a bogey at the 11th when he missed his only fairway and slashed out of the rough across the fairway and into more rough.
On both par-5 holes Friday, Woods did not hit driver off the tee, electing to stay conservative. Even though Snedeker raced to 10 under par and tied the Open 36-hole scoring record set by Nick Faldo 20 years ago at Muirfield, Woods stuck to the plan.
"That's why he's got 74 and 14," LaCava said, referring to Woods' PGA Tour victory total and his major championship haul. "He doesn't change things like that. He stayed with what he was doing."
Woods' first birdie of the week on the back nine came at the 16th, then he added the bonus birdie at the 18th.
"It's just patience on a golf course like this," Woods said. "I'm hitting the ball in the fairway, and that's the thing around this golf course, you just have to do that. You can't control it out of the rough here. And obviously the pot bunkers, you can't do anything but come out sideways.
"So it's demanding. You can take your chances but you'd better pull it off, or be conservative and play to different spots. But it gives you a variety of different options to play what you want to do. It's about commitment because most of the holes are on angles and the bunkers are staggered."
Who is to argue? Woods hit just one driver Friday (No. 2) and a 3-wood at the third; the rest were irons. While it appeared he might have been better to pound his driver on the par-5 holes, it is difficult to argue with his position.
"The [bunkers] off the tee are true hazards," Woods said. "You can take some of them out of play, but carrying them over the top and hitting driver or 3-wood ... you better pull it off. And on top of that, the rough out here is just unbelievable. It's so long that it doesn't grab the hosel, it grabs shafts.
"You've just got to make sure that whatever line you decide to on, be committed and hit it good."
So far, Woods has done just that -- and paid the price the two times he missed a fairway, both leading to bogeys. That's something to keep in mind as the intensity of the third round unfolds.
So is what Snedeker and Scott did to get atop the leaderboard.
Snedeker took the 36-hole lead without making a bogey, something not done in a major championship since Woods accomplished the feat 11 years ago on his way to a victory at St. Andrews. Scott finally started strong in a major, shooting 64-67 to trail Snedeker by one. He has never been in the final group of a major on the weekend, despite all his promise and talent. The eight-time PGA Tour winner, who this week turned 32, has not won since last year's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational -- where Steve Williams, Woods' former caddie, famously stole the headlines.
A slew of name players lurk, such as Paul Lawrie, Graeme McDowell, Matt Kuchar, Jason Dufner, Ernie Els and Steve Stricker.
Yet the names, their scores and their strategies seemed of little interest to Woods on Friday.
"I just do what I do,'' he said.
As the sun set and the temperature cooled while the remaining groups were finishing the second round, Woods headed to the driving range to work with swing coach Sean Foley, perhaps a few tweaks being discussed. It was difficult to determine if anything was amiss, the ball flying into the gloaming after two days of nearly mistake-free golf.
It has added up to some impressive numbers, a pair of 67s. Yes, they are just numbers, but the four previous times Woods has done that in major championships, he's won them all.