James Lawton: Tiger saves face with moment of brilliance to right his early wrongs

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The rampage of the Tiger did not happen in the way that had become a huge assumption before the fact. He made his classic start, a wild lurch of the spirit and overarching swing, then settled into the kind of uneven, jabbing rhythm a champion sometimes uses to set up an unsuspecting challenger.

However, there are very, very few unsuspecting contenders these days. Everybody seems to know that Tiger Woods often wins for no more compelling reason than impeccably ruthless habits. He says that he has moved on to another phase of his career, when he doesn't visualise victories, no more than he does shots. "I just like to create shots that I think will be special – and situations."

This, though, happened as a deliverance rather than the work of a competitive genius on the 15th hole here yesterday just as it seemed that the man who was supposed to be indestructible was collapsing in a way that so many believed he had consigned to his past.

But if the Tiger had become desperate, and angry, under the weight of two bogeys which left him trailing Britain's consistently challenging Justin Rose by six shots, his nerve and his audacity were once again the scourges of the game he had come to dominate.

On the par-five 13th a failed chip on a glassy, treacherously sloping green, meant that he needed four shots for a bogey rather than the two for an anticipated birdie. It was a hard blow, swiftly followed by another on the 14th, where he again took bogey.

So the day of the Tiger, and perhaps even the tournament that some were prepared to concede to him before a shot was made, came down to one shot. It was one that for most golfers would have been chillingly similar to the one that had gone wrong two holes early, an uphill challenge of timing and nerve. The Tiger's ball almost stopped beyond gently dropping in for a life-giving eagle. Another touch of history had already brushed Woods, albeit rather sourly, even before he stepped on to the first tee in a blaze of sunshine and anticipation which had, with the hour's delay because of morning fog, been brought to something as close to hysteria as even this notoriously indulgent golf gallery permits.

Jack Nicklaus, who so many judges expect to be moving a little closer to the exit door of unique achievement when the Tiger wins his fifth Green Jacket here and moves to within four of the all-time mark of 18 major title wins, was not in the best of moods when asked if he considered his 32-year-old challenger the favourite.

The Golden Bear had been roped into nine rounds of practice with those perennial boys of fading sunshine, Arnie Palmer and Gary Player, and the man who always insisted that he would never play golf without a chance of winning plainly regretted it. With a grimace, Nicklaus said, "Is he the favourite? By a mile? Of course he is. Why wouldn't he be? You're asking me the question you already know the answer to."

When Palmer and Player asked Nicklaus if he would enjoy one last spin around the old track, off the back tees, he mastered a record-breaking six times, they must have caught him in one of his more nostalgically vulnerable moments. "I tell you, it wasn't fun hitting those woods into the par fours. It made me feel old and that's why I stopped playing... I wouldn't have played nine holes if I hadn't had one of my grandsons on the bag. He loved it, saying, wow, look at all those people."

Nicklaus told him that he had seen them before, a bit in the mood of Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees, maybe, when his wife Marilyn Monroe returned from a tour of Korea for the US Army and purred, "Joe, you never heard cheering like it," and he said, "Yes, Marilyn, I did."

You get the feeling that the Tiger no longer hears the cheers – or the howls which greeted a now almost trademarked wild tee shot at the first. Hardly had these particular cheers roared away on the breeze that just faintly ruffled the dogwoods when they were replaced by cries of alarm.

He pulled his tee shot so violently that it would surely have flown on to the ninth fairway had it not smacked against a tree and bounced favourably for an approach shot which was within an inch of settling pin high and perfect but instead rolled slowly into a small valley on the right. The ensuing chip was nothing for new legends but from 10 feet the Tiger rolled home the putt.

Woods's easy putt on the first confirmed that behind the intensely focused gaze there was not much sense of a gathering crisis. He left his second tee shot, on the downhill par five, short of the cavernous bunker on the right, laid up for the green, and completed the formality of another par.

More followed at the third and fourth and while the Tiger gallery, fed on rippling reports of more spectacular deeds elsewhere, including Briton Ian Poulter's hole-in-one at the 16th, gave off whiffs of disappointment, the Tiger's reflections seemed about as accessible as some ancient code.

The truth is that every corner of this beautiful course now has a memory – and lesson – for the most overwhelming favourite in the history of golf. That he wasn't about to consume the course was something of a commonplace here ... going all the way to his first majestic triumph in 1997. Then he skied to a four-over par first nine which left him amid a storm of gasps and sighs before changing everything, the first round, the tournament, and the future of the game, by going six under on the back nine.

At the third yesterday he was propriety itself, hardly recognisable as the overheated champion who handed Phil Mickelson his first major there when reaching for a driver –and making his own destruction. Here was another par, another early indicator that after the familiar drama of the first fairway, the Tiger was prowling perhaps as judiciously as he had done in the early hours of a major tournament.

In other corners of the course there were cries suggesting the odd flash of drama. With Tiger there was just the rapt attention being paid to the golfer who longer ago learnt that if you eradicate enough mistakes, you are going to be in position to make the kill.

Here yesterday the contention grew most strongly with his defiance on the edge of the 15th green. His birdie putt on the 16th slid around the rim and rolled away, and on the 17th he saved par from six feet. On the 18th, which he parred, his face was so intent he seemed to be saying that he saw just one reality. It was that here was Tiger and 93 others who already, with the notable and magnificent exception of Rose and the resurrected 1988 winner Sandy Lyle, were being stalked by the man who is beginning to believe there is no good reason why he should ever lose.

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