- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- The snickers and snipes were flying well before the final round unfolded, a sharp needle ready to inflict damage.
Steve Williams was seemingly on his way to another major title, and that's the rather silly joke that lives on in the aftermath of his comments nearly a year ago when he got more attention as a caddie than his player Adam Scott did for winning.
But in the aftermath of a wild ending Sunday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, you do have to wonder if he might have made a difference for his old boss at the Open Championship.
We'll never know how things might have unfolded if Tiger Woods had made a different choice at the par-4 sixth hole, where an impossible bunker shot led to a triple-bogey 7.
Woods shot 73 and ended up four strokes back of champion Ernie Els, not helped by a stretch of three straight birdies on the back nine. He finished tied for third, which is his best finish in a major championship since a second to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship.
And yet, had he turned that triple into even a bogey, the closing holes would have held far more meaning to a player stuck on 14 majors now for more than four years.
"I was right there, the game plan was to shoot under par going out," Woods said. "And with the wind the way it was blowing, I was right there in position. I was even par through 5. And 7 [a par-5] is reachable today. And obviously 9 is playing easy.
"So I was in position to do what I wanted to do and then turn home and shoot maybe 1 or 2 under on the back nine and I would have posted 8 or 9 under par. And I thought that was going to be the number to win the golf tournament. Unfortunately I just didn't do it."
Sunday turned windy at Lytham, although the difficulty of the course was yet to unfold as Woods played the sixth hole, trailing Scott by four strokes. When his approach found a greenside bunker, his ball was so close to the steep ridge, it appeared he had no shot.
This is where you can speculate whether his longtime caddie Williams -- who was with Woods for 13 of his majors -- might have tried to talk him into something else, perhaps even simply hitting the ball a few feet over in the sand.
Who knows? Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava, is a veteran of these situations and might deep down have preferred that play, as well. But he didn't appear to be trying to talk Woods out of his decision.
Woods attempted to play the shot, and it was disastrous. It didn't come close to clearing the ridge, bounded back and nearly hit him, then came to rest in a worse spot. From there, Woods had to be a contortionist, trying to hit from his knees. He somehow got the ball out onto the right side of the green -- and then three-putted.
As it turned out, Woods was not trying to get the first shot out of the bunker.
"The game plan was to fire it into the bank, have it ricochet to the right and then have an angle to come back at it," he said. "Unfortunately it ricocheted to the left and almost hit me. Then I tried to play an interesting shot after that and ended up three-putting."
Hindsight being what it is, Woods would clearly have been better served to simply putt the ball to a more advantageous spot in the bunker, then try to get it up and down for a bogey. The triple -- his first in a major since the 2003 Open Championship at Royal St. George's -- was crippling.
"It ended up costing me some momentum," he said. "Again, I left a lot of putts short out there."
Woods also struggled with his short irons, leaving himself too many long birdie putts.
The scoring clubs, the 9-iron and wedges, have been an issue for a good part of this year. Woods often hits his 5- and 6-irons the same distance from the hole as his short irons. It says something about how good he is with the middle irons, but more about how poor he's been with the short ones.
At the Greenbrier two weeks ago, Woods essentially missed the cut because he couldn't hit it close enough on a golf course that he should be able to overpower, one that required a proliferation of birdies. He didn't play poorly -- Woods was even par for the tournament -- but he continually struggled with distance control with his irons, and said the altitude played a factor.
But while statistics in golf do not always tell the full story, a look at what Woods has done this year on the PGA Tour is telling.
From 50 to 125 yards, he entered the week 129th on tour, hitting the ball to an average of just more than 19 feet from the hole. This is Tiger Woods we're talking about, and that's simply not good enough. For comparison, from 175 to 200 yards, he ranks second, hitting it to an average of just more than 30 feet.
"I've got my pop back in my swing," he said. "I finally feel like I'm healthy. So I'm hitting the ball the distances I know I can. Unfortunately when I get out here with a little bit of adrenalin, it goes a little bit farther, too. It's a combination of having my strength and my speed back at the same time playing tournament golf. It's not that far off."
In the end, Woods, who moved to No. 2 in the world rankings, needed only a 1-under-par 69 to get into a playoff with Els, who began the day six strokes back of Scott and shot 68 -- the lowest score of anyone who finished among the top six.
No. 1 Luke Donald's 69 helped him get a backdoor top 5, and Nicolas Colsaerts -- finishing well before the leaders teed off -- shot the day's best score, a 65, to move into a tie for seventh. None of the other contenders even matched par.
So Woods is again left to wonder what might have been.
"It's part of golf," he said. "We all go through these phases. Some people it lasts entire careers. Others are a little bit shorter. Even the greatest players to ever play have all gone through little stretches like this."
Up next is the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, which begins on Aug. 2.
That is where last year Williams won for the first time caddying for Scott.
Bunker shot, short iron play cost Tiger Woods at the Open Championship, writes ESPN.com's Bob Harig.