James Lawton: Woods puts his nose to the grindstone

A second successive 73 will not win the world No 1 this major, but it might just show him the slope of the road back

If he didn't know it when his life and his golf began falling apart, Tiger Woods knows it now. Sometimes you just have to hold a line and remember that, if you keep trying to do the right thing, you might get through the worst that can come your way. Who knows, you might just turn everything around.

That, anyway, was the necessary belief last night of the man who in 2000 and 2005 turned this historic golf course into a little corner of what seemed like his unbreakable empire.

On Friday night, when at four-under he was still involved at the edges of the tournament, he declared that he believed he was at last on the right track. Unfortunately, it was littered with new obstacles yesterday, when it was time to begin his first serious moves in the fight to re-establish himself as the man every golfer has to beat.

Fourth in the US Masters and the same mark in the US Open spoke of a determination to ride the long squalls of a new notoriety, but it was here at the scene of two of his great triumphs that he was supposed to announce the recovery of his name, and his game.

After dropping another shot yesterday in his fading pursuit of a 15th major win, he conceded: "I hit it well at times, in fact I'm driving beautifully, but I just have to get more speed on my putting. I'm playing better than my position suggests, but I am having more putts than I should. It has to change."

It meant that all he could produce was another over-par round that failed to follow the principle he embraced so enthusiastically after taking himself to the fringe of the serious action on the first day with a 67. "The trick on a benign day," he had said, "is to let a round mature, to wait for your opportunities." Yesterday the delay finally began to wear at Woods' hard-won composure.

It first came under stress after four opening holes that were played at something close to the immaculate. The driving was solid, and on the fourth he produced a monster putt for birdie that missed by a fraction. Such are the margins, in this case, between earnest endeavour and some form of miraculous redemption.

The second development will now have to wait for the PGA tournament next month, or maybe Augusta in the spring, when the dogwood and azaleas are out and young men's fancy turns to... well, that may be another story. In the meantime, Woods is simply obliged to make the best of his journey in the margins of the game he once dominated so profoundly.

He hangs on to his No1 status, but only because none of his rivals have really had the sustained nerve to put down Woods when he has never been more vulnerable. Or less likely to take hold of this links land and turn it into a personal fief.

The pattern yesterday was established in a serious of blows that seemed designed to diminish Woods just at those moments when he might have believed he had seen the first glints of light in the nine months of the great ordeal.

Bogeys came at the fifth, the eighth and the 13th and they might have broken a more fragile competitive spirit. But then if Woods can be surrounded, hassled and driven into evidence of extreme frustration, it is not so easy to make him accept the advice that he is staring in the face of accumulating failure.

For every setback, there was another swirl of belief that he might just be back in some kind of business. He birdied the ninth, the 12th and the 15th and on the 16th he produced an approach shot that reminded you that much genius had been misplaced in the trauma of a personal crisis.

On Friday night he had spoken of that eternally fine dividing line between win and loss, and how it can narrow so swiftly when the wind picks up in a place like this one. "We never got what Louis [the obscure South African leader] got. He had 16 holes downwind but that's the way it can go. If you get a good break you have got to capitalise on it. He certainly did. For everyone else, we had to grind it out. You can have good shots that end up as bad shots, and hit some bad shots that end up in better places. That's golf."

At times it can also be life, as Woods now understands better than perhaps he did before he went for an early-morning drive while the rest of the US was sleeping off Thanks- giving. These last few days, his timing and his direction have, like all that genius, been at times not so apparent. But then as he reaches his mid- thirties he still perhaps has a little margin for error, something he suggested with a superb recovery after over-hitting his approach into the Road Hole. He had to come back over the wall, which he did exquisitely.

Unfortunately, it left him with another bogey on his card. It was not the most shining he has ever handed in to the scorer, but then he does have a little time – and, you have to suspect, enough resolution for something better somewhere along the road. Today he has an obligation that is becoming a little too familiar. He has to remind us that he is indeed the best golfer the world has ever seen. For the moment, plainly, it is a work in some growing need of progress.

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