Tiger well within Open title picture
LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- Not again. That's what I said to myself on Saturday afternoon when Tiger Woods bogeyed two of the first three holes in the third round of the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
My mind wandered back a month earlier to the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, when Tiger was in a three-way tie for the lead heading into the third round. That Saturday in San Francisco, eight times zones from England, the 14-time major champion would also start his day with early bogeys on his way to a 4-over-par 75.
Now I could hear the Tiger critics saying, I told you so. He can't win another major. Not now, at least.
But then as quickly as the rumors of his demise began to politely spread within the throng of mostly English fans, Tiger reeled off three birdies in his last four holes on the front nine. There was still hope that he could win his 15th major championship.
Tiger would end his third round with an even-par 70 for a 6-under total, 5 shots back of Adam Scott, who is at 11-under after a 68 on Saturday.
"It was not a very good start," Woods said. "I fought back and just didn't get anything going on that back nine. I thought I had a couple of good looks at some putts and didn't make them and misread the putt there at 15. But even par is about right."
Tiger didn't mount a great charge on Moving Day, but neither did he play himself out of the tournament. On Saturday, the winds at Lytham were calm for a third consecutive day, but the R&A made an effort to protect the course with some tough pin locations. The lack of wind has been a source of frustration for many players hoping for the Open conditions that have historically set the tournament apart from the other majors.
"We're just so accustomed to it playing over here," Tiger said. "And it's one of the things that we actually expect to happen."
For those players chasing Scott, 30 to 40 mph winds Sunday could offer them a mechanism to impose the will of the weather on the tournament. But Tiger isn't banking on Mother Nature to help him catch the 32-year-old Australian. He knows what's in his control.
"I've just got to execute my game plan," Tiger said. "Whether the wind blows or not, I've still got to go out there and post the round that I know I need to post and execute my plan."
Execute my plan. Tiger said these words four times on Saturday evening when talking to reporters. He needs to reinforce the idea that he doesn't plan to deviate from his strategy. He will play Lytham carefully, with mostly irons off the tee, and play away from the pins, taking his chances with 20-foot birdie putts.
I believe him.
Largest 54-hole deficits overcome at the Open Championship
But there is much more to Tiger than stratagem. This focus is just one aspect of why we shouldn't count him out on Sunday to draw one step closer to Jack Nicklaus' majors record.
Let's start with Scott, the man who stands in Tiger's way of taking a fourth Claret Jug. Though Brandt Snedeker and Graeme McDowell are a shot closer to the lead than Woods, Scott is the big fish to catch.
What are his bona fides to beat Tiger in a major?
Scott has seven top-10s in 45 majors. The closest he has come to winning one came at the 2011 Masters, where he had a tie for second. You know Tiger's record: 35 top-10s, including the 14 wins.
Trust me, if Scott sees Tiger making birdies in the group ahead of him on Sunday, it's going to catch his attention. But at least he doesn't have to deal with the intimidation of playing with Woods. Yet Tiger's history won't fall too far from his mind.
Then there is Tiger's record in 2012: three wins in 12 events. Snedeker is the only player ahead of Woods on the leaderboard with a win this year, and that came in January. Scott hasn't been in serious contention in an event all year. And his last win came at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last August.
McDowell did have a chance of winning the U.S. Open at Olympic, eventually tying for second. And he did have a 67 on Saturday at Lytham, better than any of the top four on the leaderboard. So he has a lot of confidence to get him through Sunday.
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But you could argue that records and achievements can be thrown out in the heat of the battle. The golf ball doesn't respect anybody's résumé. It's the final round of a major.
Still, Tiger's self-belief is the one intangible that could make Sunday a special day for him. It's been a long time since he believed like he does now in his golf swing and his ability to hit shots under pressure. A few years have softened the sting of the embarrassing revelations of his marital infidelities. He's healthy for the first time in many years. He's a man seemingly in control of his emotions, at peace with his past and future.
On Saturday evening, he refused to give a score that it would take to beat Scott.
"Whatever happens, happens," he said. "I've just got to go out there and execute my game plan."
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2012 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
2012 venue: Royal Lytham & St. Annes
Where: Lytham St. Annes, England
TV coverage: All four rounds on ESPN
Yardage, par: 7,086 yards, par-70
Past champions: Complete list