James Lawton: Cautious Woods still hunting for the old Tiger
The former world No 1 is still in the mix for the Claret Jug, but this is a different vintage from years past
Whatever Tiger Woods wins in his second career – his second lifetime as a contender for the mythic title of the greatest golfer of all time – it may not be too soon to consider what he has lost, and maybe forever.
It was at least a possibility that could not be ignored in the playing of the par-five 11th hole yesterday by Woods and then Adam Scott, the 32-year-old Australian, who in the course of it opened up a five-shot lead in his attempt to win his first major title to set against the 14 already gathered in by a man just four years his senior.
It was not the scoring, which saw Scott denied an eagle by the barest margin and the Tiger always giving himself too much to do to glean a birdie, but the profound difference in their strategies.
Really, it was a gulf. Scott slugged a drive with immense power and control. The Tiger once more elected to go with an iron. Scott powered his second shot beyond the pin. Woods was well short of the green. Even after the years of crisis, the convulsions in his life and the disruptions brought by injury, it did seem like another small defeat among many.
Perhaps the new and more cautious Woods will eke out the victories that will get him past Jack Nicklaus's record total of 18 majors, because certainly he has produced moments of the old brilliance over the last few days – and not least yesterday when he followed his sublime chip out of a bunker on the 18th on Friday night with a stunning 50ft putt on the sixth.
But if it should happen, there is one near-certainty: it is not likely to be in the fashion that Tiger's most ardent admirers imagined when they first argued it was inevitable, such was the depth of his talent, that he regained most, if not all, of the lost terrain.
It was a brave scenario coloured by all the years of glory, the surges of brilliance, the recurring sense that he could find a way to win and play some of the most improbable shots ever seen, in a way beyond the power of any of his rivals.
For the moment, though, it seems like so much wishful, even sentimental thinking, despite the fact that Woods, having dropped two shots in the first four holes yesterday, produced three birdies in four holes and by the 14th was again just four shots off the lead after Scott made his first bogey of the day on the 13th.
Could the Tiger exploit the possibility of the first doubts of Scott, the man buoyed by the zealous backing of Woods's former caddie Steve Williams and absolute confidence in the broom-handle putter they may soon provoke moves for its abolition?
Plainly, it remains a matter for fierce speculation going into the last day on a course which first persuaded Woods that he was ready for the challenge of the professional game as a 20-year-old in 1996.
But then, if it happens, it will be a triumph not for the old Tiger, the ultimate prowler of the game, but the new pragmatic figure who prides himself not so much in his instinct for supreme invention but his capacity to operate a plan.
Going into the third round he declared: "Overall I'm very pleased at where I'm at. I'm in the mix. It's going to be a good weekend. I figured I had a game plan that would fit well in this golf course and I figured I could execute it. I've done it so far on the golf course. It's a matter of patience – and I'm also hitting the fairways, and that's also the thing you have to do around this course."
Woods's patience came under new pressure when he dropped a shot on the 15th and then left a long putt for birdie grievously short on the 17th. On Friday that last glorious chip not only invited new hopes that he might indeed be moving to end the barren years, it also offered that old image of someone who could conjure remarkable deeds at the most unlikely moments.
It meant that he came to the first tee yesterday with a considerable amount of restored aura. Some of it was squandered in the carelessness of the early holes – and some more of it dissipated still further when he repeatedly reached for an iron and his battleplan of attrition.
But then, of course, there does remain quite a bit of credit – and the chance that not all of it will be truly exhausted when he concludes, win or lose, his mission to pass the Nicklaus mark, something that not so long ago appeared to be the last word in formality.
His last gesture yesterday came on the 18th fairway, a second shot which set up the possibility of another dramatic flourish at the end of one more draining shift. The long putt failed and, naturally, he sighed. Sometimes, he might have been saying, patience is not all it is cracked up to be.
Brit watch: How the others fared on a day the home guard fell away
Luke Donald (209 -1)
The world No 1 still insists that he can win his first major even though he only shot a 71 to be 10 shots behind.He said: "I am probably too far back, but I will go out and give it my all."
Paul Lawrie (212 +2)
After shooting a 76 he will need a repeat of his 1999 Carnoustie miracle, when he started the final round 10 shots behind but still lifted the Claret Jug.
Matthew Baldwin (211 +1)
The 26-year-old European Challenge Tour graduate from nearby Southport produced a third-round 69 on his Open debut and said that if he had putted better he could have been six under.
Jamie Donaldson (212 +2)
The recent winner of the Irish Open failed to find the magic touch on the greens which saw him mug Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell in their Royal Portrush backyard.
Simon Dyson (212 +2)
Still struggling to refind his touch after missing Wentworth through injury and losing his caddie, Guy Tilston, to Marcel Siem, who recently won the French Open with the experienced bagman.
Ian Poulter (213 +3)
On a bad day, Poulter appeared to have a row with his long-time caddie Terry Munday on the 14th tee and walked off with no comment after making two double bogeys in the next four holes for a 73.
Lee Slattery (216 +6)
Playing in front of his home crowd, Slattery shot a disappointing 75. He blamed a headache which failed to react to painkillers and faster greens on the third day for his failure to make a move.
Martin Laird (221 +11)
After four double bogeys in an error-strewn 82 the US-based Scot breezed past the waiting reporters saying: "No thanks, guys".
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