Open and shut case as Tiger takes route 66 to humble St Andrews

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The Independent Online

Perhaps that is a tad premature, never mind hugely disrespectful to Sergio Garcia, who was two behind with four holes to play, in a sizeable group on four under which includes Luke Donald, Retief Goosen, Jose Maria Olazabal and the wide-eyed Scottish amateur Eric Ramsay. Theirs is a valiant pursuit. But is it doomed to be a vain pursuit? In this form, in this mood, on this course, it sure looks like it, even if there are 54 holes to go.

The spine-tingling fact to disturb every other competitor's slumber here last night was that not everything went Woods' way. If they had done, then he could quite easily have threatened the course record of 63, which also happens to be the lowest score recorded in a major. It is part of golfing folklore that in 2000 the then 24-year-old waltzed around the Old Course without finding a single bunker. Yesterday he managed to locate three, costing him two bogeys on the 13th and 16th. But it was what happened at the seventh that best encapsulated this giddying mix of supreme talent and supreme conviction.

Finding the bunker that guards the entry to the green off the tee, hitting what he termed "a very soft three wood" 315 yards, Woods simply splashed out to six feet and held the putt. Birdie; his third in four holes and there were four more of the little red beauties in the next five holes, meaning that he was seven under for that nine-hole stretch. So as he stood on the 13th tee, needing three more birdies to advance to 10 under and rip up the history books once more, the 62 seemed eminently possible.

In fact, the overwhelming feeling here, as the whisper kept swirling in the air that "Tiger's birdied another one", was that it was eminently probable. The clock on the wall of the Royal and Ancient clubhouse above the 18th green had only just ticked past 11am with four and a half hours gone and approximately 80 to go, but it already had the look of a one-man Open with the Tiger Tour of yesteryear gloriously back on the road.

On a day when the skies were grey and the wind was infuriatingly inconsistent, the last six holes at St Andrews courageously rose to protect the rest of the hallowed links from Woods's worst intentions.

Still, though, he had the last laugh, effortlessly driving the 340 yards to the edge of the 18th green and then somehow judging the wickedly deceiving hollow that characterises the Valley of Sin to putt up to within a few feet for his eighth birdie. "Hey, I've told everybody that I'm playing well," said the Masters champion.

They could hardly have failed to notice with a leaderboard on every hole, a humbling truth acknowledged by Donald and the remarkable Goosen who showed that he has kept all the grit of old, despite his nightmare at Pinehurst where he startlingly crumbled to throw away last month's US Open, by compiling a 68 while brushing off a double bogey on the 13th. If Woods is to have a sparring partner within arm's length over the next three days, this South African streetfighter could easily be that man.

The home fans will pray, of course, that it will be Donald, the 27-year-old from High Wycombe, whose inexorable graduation to the big time shifted forward a few more semesters yesterday. He confessed that Woods's march could have been a "distraction" and that playing with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson could have magnified it a thousand times. But as Nicklaus strained every sinew of his creaking 65-year-old bones for a 75, evoking the hysteria that we all knew it would, Donald simply put his head down and did what he does best - plods.

Just one bogey blemished his card as he suddenly realised that his five previous missed cuts at the Open were probably down to him trying too hard to adapt his game. Donald's principle quality is his control and he exemplified the virtue - that has brought him second at The Players and third at The Masters - at the ninth, where he resisted the temptation to take on the reachable green to lay it up the fairway with a mid iron and then plop a full wedge to within a few feet. Negotiating the tricky run-in from the 13th in one-under was further proof of his ever-toughening composure.

Olazabal matched him on this final five, the Spaniard the only player to keep a bogey off his card as his beautiful touch impressed all, not least Woods who later confessed to copying some of his playing partner's exquisite chips. "Nobody's better than Ollie at that," he said.

This short-game saved the 39-year-old a few times, and it needed to because it was almost impossible to avoid trouble out there. Just ask Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood who both saw shots disappear into the burn in front of the first green - the former recovering commendably for a one-under 71, the latter alas unable to in his dream-wrecking 76 - and then witness the travails of Steve Webster who felt on top of the world when he holed his chip on the ninth to join Tiger at six under, only to wish he was under it when he then went bogey, bogey, par, double bogey, to hurtle back to two under.

At least the 30-year-old from Nuneaton was in under par with a 71 because there were some awfully big names floundering over it, none bigger than Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els with a pair of miserable 74s. Meanwhile the other member of the Fab Four, Vijay Singh, was faring rather better, standing at three under with four holes remaining.

But regardless of what the Fijian was to do - or indeed, Garcia, the 25-year-old who was doing his utmost to catch Tiger as the rain began to pour - it was inconceivable that Woods wouldn't be dominating the news headlines. And that wasn't all for his golf, but also for his mother Kutilda's lucky escape from last week's bombings, a story that gave the two-minute silence that stopped play at midday here even more poignancy.

It was an extraordinary revelation on an extraordinary day in the extraordinary life of Tiger Woods.

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