Golden exit line for the Bear

If the final major championship of the year was meant to be about Tiger Woods and his attempt at tying Ben Hogan's feat of winning three majors in a row, then no one told Jack Nicklaus. Woods duly took a one-stroke lead into yesterday's third round of the 82nd USPGA Championship at Valhalla. The world No 1 also held the halfway lead at the US Open, by six shots, and at the Open, when he was in front by three. "There you go," Woods said. "Six, three, one. I'm getting old, going downhill." It took a birdie at the final hole of the second round for Woods to move ahead of Scott Dunlap, who held a three-stroke advantage himself over three more Americans - Davis Love, J.P.Hayes and Fred Funk. A five-under 67, following his 66 of the opening day, left Woods at 11 under par. But his four at the 18th only matched the birdie from Nicklaus that stole all the attention.

If the final major championship of the year was meant to be about Tiger Woods and his attempt at tying Ben Hogan's feat of winning three majors in a row, then no one told Jack Nicklaus. Woods duly took a one-stroke lead into yesterday's third round of the 82nd USPGA Championship at Valhalla. The world No 1 also held the halfway lead at the US Open, by six shots, and at the Open, when he was in front by three. "There you go," Woods said. "Six, three, one. I'm getting old, going downhill." It took a birdie at the final hole of the second round for Woods to move ahead of Scott Dunlap, who held a three-stroke advantage himself over three more Americans - Davis Love, J.P.Hayes and Fred Funk. A five-under 67, following his 66 of the opening day, left Woods at 11 under par. But his four at the 18th only matched the birdie from Nicklaus that stole all the attention.

Woods and Nicklaus, along with Vijay Singh, were paired together for the first two days, the first time they had played alongside each other in competition. As Dunlap, who has played all round the world but never before at the sharp end of a major, discovered yesterday, most players find it difficult to play with Woods. Singh, the Masters champion, missed the cut. The one person who did not look as if he was intimidated, however, was the 60-year-old Nicklaus.

This is the last year Nicklaus will play in all four majors. It was almost certainly his last appearance in the USPGA, which he won five times. He has suggested this might have been his last major championship but no one believes he won't turn up at Augusta for a few more Masters yet. He was 54th at Augusta this year but missed the cut at both the Opens, receiving standing ovations at the conclusion of his second rounds at Pebble Beach and St Andrews. Another followed at Valhalla. After the death of is mother, Helen, on Wednesday, Nicklaus shot a 77 in the opening round but on Friday birdied the first two holes.

Coming to the last, Nicklaus needed a three to make the cut. "I knew what I needed to make," he said. For his third shot, he had a pitch with a sand wedge from 72 yards. The ball pitched past the hole and almost spun back in, leaving a short putt for birdie. "The wind was in my face and I said, 'hit it just behind the hole and I think it will come back down the hill a little bit'. It did. It was nice to make a birdie on the last hole, if it is going to be my last hole in a major championship. It may or may not be, I don't know. Certainly, it was a nice way to end the year."

Woods, who had fallen into a tie for the lead by three-putting the 17th for his only bogey of the round, was buried in the front bunker in two but came out to 15 feet and holed the putt. But while he knew the importance of taking sole possession of the lead, the 24-year-old also appreciated the significance of the moment for his playing partner.

"I was up by the green and had the perfect vantage point to see Jack's little wedge shot," Woods said. "And everybody up the embankment, the sun setting, it was kind of neat to look at the sight and take it all in. When he hit it, I didn't watch the shot, I watched him swing. I said, 'that is perfect rhythm, it's going to be pretty good'. I don't know how it didn't go in. It was pretty cool."

Woods, who could become the first player since Denny Shute in 1937 to defend the USPGA title successfully, added: "It's been quite a couple of days. I enjoyed playing with Jack and it was great for me. Nobody even noticed what I was doing."

Apart, that is, from the other contenders who had to look up at his name at the top of the leaderboard yet again. "Tiger not only has the ability to be so much better than the other guys," Nicklaus said, "but the others are not sure they can win. That is a big factor. But what I enjoyed about watching Tiger was how he played within himself and made it look very, very easy.

"He is doing it with so much more power to use. I don't think I have ever seen anybody do what he is doing so much within himself. Obviously, I knew he was good. Every time I turned on the television, he made a putt. But I had never watched him play, other than in a practice round, and I think he is better than I thought he was. I was pleasantly surprised with that.

"And, of course, he is a pleasant young man to play with. He couldn't have been nicer. He has a good sense of humour and enjoys to joke around a bit. I think the baton passed a long time ago but it couldn't pass to a nicer young man who is obviously the cream of the crop right now by a mile."

The only player other than Woods with a major title within seven strokes of the lead was Love. The USPGA champion from Winged Foot in 1997 bogeyed the last two holes as players continued into the darkness to try to finish their rounds.

A storm had delayed the round by an hour but the pace of play was quicker than on Thursday, although where players and officials get the idea that five hours for a threeball is acceptable is a mystery. Eleven players had to finish their second rounds yesterday morning with Notah Begay, Woods's old college room-mate, joining Bob May at six under.

The cut was confirmed at three over, with 15 Europeans qualifying, including Nick Faldo and Padraig Harrington, who started the week with a neck problem, right on the mark.

Faldo scored a 68 after his 79 on Thursday. Darren Clarke, who birdied the last two holes, and Thomas Bjorn were the leading Europeans at four under. "I had a few chances early on but lost momentum," Clarke said after a 72. "I've got to not make any more mistakes and try and make lots of birdies."

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