Hunters hot on Tiger scent

Monty, Olazabal and Goosen almost catch Woods with his guard down
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Imagine if someone had told us that scoreline as the field set out on Thursday? That the world No 1 would have been on 12 under and that his principal pursuers would be Jose Maria Olazabal on 10 under, with Colin Montgomerie and Retief Goosen on nine? We would have raised our eyebrows, shrugged our shoulders and asked each other, "Who do you reckon will come second then?"

But as we sat there last night we were posing a few questions of an entirely different nature. "Will Monty at last win his first major?" "Will Olazabal roll back the years?" "Can Retief exorcise the ghosts of the US Open?" How could we dare believe such things possible? Simple. Because Woods yesterday revealed a number of cracks that we just did not expect to be in his seemingly indestructible make-up.

The world No 1 still managed to knock it around the Old Course in under par, mind you, with a third round of 71 that was guts personified. But with Olazabal, Montgomerie and Goosen, firing a 68, a 70 and a 66 respectively, his "unbreachable" four-shot lead was suddenly startlingly breachable. And that is good news for anyone near a television set today whose name does not end with Woods.

Because there is not only the challenge of Olazabal, Montgomerie and Goosen to raise the blood pressure and make the claret froth in the jugular. On eight under par is a group including the Spaniard Sergio Garcia and on seven under lies the world No 2, Vijay Singh, and the US Open champion, Michael Campbell. Believe it, the catwalk is now a dogfight. A marvellous day's sport decided that.

Where to start explaining what went on out there yesterday, as St Andrews reached unexplored heights of frenzy, is so difficult to decide. There were just so many moments that seemed definitive when they happened that it would seem almost churlish to single one out.

In terms of Woods' round of three bogeys and three birdies, and the glaring psychological necessity for him never to surrender the lead, then you need look no further than the four he achieved at the Road Hole 17th, where he found the deep rough off the tee before hacking up towards the green and somehow getting up and down in two (although his two-putt birdie from 60ft on the 18th was an heroic second best).

But then there were also two jaw-dropping moments when Woods drove into the gorse that bagpiped his fallibility throughout Fife and beyond. Woods recovered well both times, taking a bogey on the sixth and a par on the 10th, to show the tremendous courage that almost rivals his unique talent. But so, amazingly, did Montgomerie who threw off two years of self-doubt by gallantly surviving the heat of the glare. Indeed, the gumption he displayed in holing his swirling 12-footer down the 18th green, to allow him the glory of beating his playing partner, reminded of the Monty of the Ryder Cup.

To keep it up is a mission he may well respond to, especially if he can rid the card of the two bogeys that almost ruined his three-birdie haul yesterday. His confidence is back and the 42-year-old has never looked so proud as when striding up the last fairway. Although he conceded the right to Olazabal to go out in today's final group he ensured that the galleries will still be screaming his name as he ventures out with Goosen. "What a day, what a crowd," he said. "If I can score 66 in the final round then I can win this thing. Tiger's not bullet-proof."

Montgomerie sounded incredulous as he said it, as had Olazabal a few moments earlier when reflecting on his own remarkable resurgence, highlighted by the eagle on the 12th that threw the Spaniard's laughing head backwards and the poor scoreboard volunteers scurrying for cover once more. It matched Garcia's own two on the par-four ninth and took the 39-year-old to 10 under. His last-hole birdie - only his third of the day - negated his solitary bogey on the 13th to claim second off Goosen, whose morning 66 had set the standard.

The South African swears that the experience of the US Open at Pinehurst - when Campbell sounded a klaxon behind The Unflappable Goose to overhaul a three-shot lead - has not effected his renowned temperament one jot. "Deep down, regardless of whatever anyone says, I know that it was just one of those days," he said.

Still, it is dubious that the 36-year-old would ever before have written off his own chances with more than 30 holes remaining as he did here. "After birdieing the first I knew that my next chance would be the fifth," he said, recalling his urge for a fast start to breach the eight-shot gap that separated him from Woods. "But then I walked off there with a six. I turned to my caddie and told him 'I think I'm out of it now'."

Fortunately for Goosen, Colin Byrne is one of the highest-rated bagmen on the circuit - he has just published a fine insight into his old trade's art - and he was not having any of it. "Colin's very positive and told me to keep at it and just to keep on grinding," said Goosen. "I birdied three of the next four holes."

That spiralled him to six under and, with Sandy Lyle alongside him also warming up the patriotic masses on his way to a 69 and his own six-under total, there were now a few Goosen bumps on the goose bumps that would be multiplied all afternoon. Four birdies followed - a quite glorious punch into the 16th making light of this fearsome par four - and although the 17th claimed one back for the Old Course, the Goose was taking a gander at the Jug once again.

Was he lucky to have been able to woo the course they call The Old Lady in the morning, though, before the gusts arrived to ruffle her hair and worsen her mood? Montgomerie thought so. "We definitely had the worst of the conditions," he said. And Woods agreed: "You could say that. The wind was starting to pick up in the middle of the round and the greens got harder and the fairways got harder. I actually hit it decent today and to end up with the lead is pretty sweet. Having the experience to call upon and knowing to handle playing the lead... well I've done it before."

In fact, Woods has never lost a final-round lead in a major before and as he has won nine of them, that is one ominous portent. If he does prevail, and the bookies still rate him as 2-5 "certainty", then he would be the first player to hold the outright lead in all four rounds in an Open since Tom Weiskopf 32 years ago, and only the sixth player in all.

Typical Tiger, he can take on history even when not at his best. Olazabal, Goosen, Monty and, yes, all of Scotland will have to throw everything they have got at him to deny the phenomenon today.