Groans, ghouls and glory on the hardest road

Early on Friday evening Tiger Woods knew right away that his second shot to the treacherous 17th hole at St Andrews was heading for trouble. The way Woods had planned it, the ball would catch the right side of the green and run on for a birdie opportunity. Nothing worse than a two-putt par.

Early on Friday evening Tiger Woods knew right away that his second shot to the treacherous 17th hole at St Andrews was heading for trouble. The way Woods had planned it, the ball would catch the right side of the green and run on for a birdie opportunity. Nothing worse than a two-putt par.

Watching his ball in flight, Woods felt sure that he had made it. But then a groan coming back to him from the packed grandstand alongside the green told a different story. Woods, who had not dropped a shot since teeing off on Thursday, was in trouble. His ball had skipped right and down a bank to finish in short grass close to the dreaded Tarmac.

Many great players have come to grief on the 17th, and the spectators who pitch up there daily know it. They are also drawn by the prospect of thrilling recoveries, courage and imagination. So what now, Tiger?

In attempting to bounce a shot on to the green, Woods didn't get enough club on the ball, but his luck held. A nine-footer for par, where he could easily have found himself playing from the feared greenside bunker. In lengthening shadows, Woods sank the putt.

Woods was racing away from the field at 16 under when he reached the 17th yesterday. No dramas occurred, but after a birdie attempt scurried by he missed the return putt and dropped a shot to give those closest to him some late encouragement.

When Woods' friend Notah Begay reached the 17th on Thursday he was on a roll, seven under and thinking about going off next day as tournament leader. Then the 17th got him. First, Begay drove left into rough. He stayed in the long grass and then, fearful of finding the bunker, sent a nine-iron so far left that it ended up in the burn. As far as anyone could recall this was a unique happening. Begay delighted the galleries by choosing, successfully, to play out, but ended up three shots adrift to tumble off the leader board.

When the 17th first came into play yesterday a full complement of ghouls had long since gathered there, every seat in the stand taken and not a space to be found on the grass that rises up from an ancient stone wall.

As Christy O'Connor Junior hove into view he appeared to be running out of grass. Rough from the tee, rough again, finally to the front of the green. Three putts, double bogey, the day's first victim. Then three putts apiece for Retief Goosen and Craig Parry.

What is it about the 17th, a 455-yard par four? There is more than one way of playing it, but few get to feel that they have selected the right option. Scott Hoch of the United States once made such a mess of it that from being safely inside the cut he marched straight off at 18 and into a car for the airport.

The sight of Tom Watson's ball skipping across the green and down towards the road raised a great deal of excitement. A five-times Open champion in trouble. Watson took it in his stride. Pop-up sand wedge to about four feet. Big cheer. Then a groan. Watson, smiling stoically, maybe thinking of days long gone, missed the putt.

Watching Bernhard Langer play golf can be a test of anyone's patience. If computers were allowed on the course there would be one in there with his clubs. At seven under when he got to the 17th green the German spent longer, almost five minutes, over his putt than any other competitor, to no avail. He too dropped a shot.

Langer's playing partner, Tom Kite, chipped up from the road, but not to his satisfaction. "Didn't hit it hard enough," he cracked fractiously after squirting his chip well off line and perilously close to the bunker. Another bogey.

Gary Orr had a good round going at four under when his approach to 17 caught the bunker. In attempting a tricky up-and-down he sent the ball left over the 18th tee and across the road. A bump back didn't make it, his ball checking at the top of the bank. Two putts. Triple bogey.

It's a while since Mark Calcavecchia surprised most people by winning an Open. The next year, 1990, he failed to make the cut. Calcavecchia, however, is a tough pro, and he achieved the rare distinction of a birdie at 17. Anticipating the applause for a terrific approach that made his putt a little more than a formality, Calcavecchia began to wave before he heard the cheers.

Calcavecchia was still waving happily when he left the green. Easy game, he appeared to be thinking.

It wasn't quite what Sergio Garcia thought when he came to the 17th at seven under. His approach had found the bun-ker, not only that but he had an impossible lie right up against the face.

Rather than taking a drop he chose to putt back across the sand, and by the time he got out there were already four strokes against him. He ended up with a double bogey.

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