Golf: The Open - Woods deserted by his magic formula

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The Independent Online
AFTER NINE HOLES around Carnoustie's forbidding links Tiger Woods was out of contention, his chance of winning the 128th Open Championship and a second major title at 23 lost in the clinging rough and on greens that constantly baffled him.

For one so successful and rich, still not much more than a boy but with a man's maturity, major titles are all that really matter, the focal point of concentration. But even a player of Woods' immense talent could not successfully take on the challenge of clawing back at least five shots to put his name on Carnoustie's roll of honour.

"My golfing education improves every time I come over here, and every time I tee up I become a better player because I am learning all the time. In five years' time I will be a much better player mentally from experiences like this. I'm not down. It's golf. I'm proud of the way I played this week even if I'm disappointed I didn't win."

Woods' dilemma when he went to the first was precisely what he had spoken about after falling back to seven over on Saturday; whether to continue with the conservative game plan he had adopted throughout the championship in the hope of setting up realistic birdie opportunities, or gamble on his power.

The world No 1 knew that there was no profit in an unblemished round unless Jean van de Velde caved in under pressure and the other leading contenders came back to him but there was peril in boldness. The factor uppermost in Woods' mind was precision. "I didn't have it today," he said after the third round, "I just didn't give myself chances to make birdie. I feel that I am putting well but I've got to get the ball closer."

When Woods set off with Andrew Coltart with the target of shooting a score low enough to unnerve the leaders it was clear that the spectators did not share his confidence. For once he was not the centre of attention on a golf course, the galleries comparatively sparse with gaps along the fairways.

Conjecture over the approach Woods would adopt was soon settled when he went at the first with a two iron that first drew applause but then a groan when the ball took a bad kick into a bunker.

Proving again that his definition of a crisis is rather different from that of most golfers, Woods took a long look at the problem before going close to make par with a chip and a putt.

Doubtless, realising that fireworks were expected of him, Woods inched his driver from the bag on the second tee, smiled then let it drop back in favour of his two iron. This time he went into the left rough, his care again unrewarded. Another fine recovery. Another par on his card.

A wedge to 12ft at the third gave Woods a chance to get his round going but he misread the putt, shaking his head in bemusement and perhaps sensing already that the task was beyond him.

What, you began to wonder, was going on in his mind? Was he seeking a sign, a whiff of inspiration or did he suspect that the magic we have come to expect had deserted him? In any case, Woods did not appear to be at ease with his game and could not fail to be aware that his play was disappointing the galleries. No petulance, he appears to have left that behind, but little of the certainty either.

Finally, at the sixth, Woods went with his driver, giving the ball a fearful whack that sent it more than 320 yards into rough on the left. Woods shook his head. If it wasn't one thing it was another. Putting for birdie from all of 100ft, he was close but short.

Around about this time news came that Van de Velde had dropped two shots over the first three holes and when it spread quickly along the ropes some of Woods' supporters shouted in encouragement. However, the smile on his face was one of resignation, especially when the birdie chances continued to slip away from his grasp.

After one of these blemishes Woods held his putter in both hands, looking intently at the blade as though it no longer deserved his affection.

When just slightly off line at the ninth, the putt sliding just by, Woods threw back his head and closed his eyes. It wasn't happening. To hell with it. Time to have a go but again a long putt, all of 40ft, at the 10th bobbled two feet away.

At the 12th Woods went at the ball with such venom that the contact of his driver had the sound of a gun shot as the ball was propelled into a bank of rough. His shot from there sailed into a gorse bush to the right of the green requiring him to take a penalty drop. A blind shot to 20ft was miraculously performed, but he finished with a double bogey.

Something like normal service was resumed when Woods birdied the par 5 14th - his first of the day - but another shot went at the next. No thrashing of the grass, not a sulk, just calm acceptance of missing inspiration. Two more pars, a bogey at the last, round in 74, a handshake and a smile for Coltart.

One of the impressive things about Woods at Carnoustie has been his refusal to join in the general bitching about the golf course. Because it more or less took the driver out of play, Woods did not think that Carnoustie was entirely fair but at least he made the best of it, which is more than can be said for a number of his contemporaries.