James Lawton: Wounded Tiger finds the eagles too elusive

Click to follow

This time last year Amen Corner sang an aria to the glory of Tiger Woods. Yesterday it could muster only a lament, one that was intensified by another piece of genius from him on the 16th green.

Last year he produced the chip shot of a lifetime, an improbable, snaking passage across the 16th green that, after a successful rounding of that corner of the course which has shaped so many triumphs ­ and failures ­ told the Tiger he had to win his fourth Green Jacket. This time his superb tee-shot for birdie could only underline what these day past few days had always been just a tantalising inch away.

The glory of the chip shot seemed such a long time ago in the gathering dusk of last evening when Woods was cut off from his last serious chance of another victory at the 11th hole ­ the entrance to that part of the course which tests out the quality of putative champions.

Suddenly it seemed that the Tiger had chased down too difficult a quarry. He thought he could balance the emotional weight of his concern for his father's battle for life in California with a champion's desire, at such a poignant time in his life, to produce one of his great performances ­ an effort which would provide still more proof, if it were needed, that Earl Woods had shaped not only a gifted golfer but one of life's true fighters.

Earl's boy showed that he could compete as hard as anyone who ever walked on to a golf course, but at vital moments his touch fell short of the sublime. It meant that American heroes from before the time the Tiger redefined the game in all corners of the world, 46-year-old Fred Couples and the late blossoming champion Phil Mickelson, 35, were able to reclaim a stage from which they had been so relentlessly driven.

Couples also began to wilt at the 12th hole, when he missed a short putt after holding his aching back, and the march of Mickelson seemed certain to end in his second victory here and his third major.

For Woods it was time to nurse his competitive wounds, and a deeper pain, and wait for the time when he would be better able to play again with a freedom that was always elusive here as he fought a dogged but rarely truly inspired battle on the fringes of the central action.

"I putted atrociously today, as badly as I played the ball well," Woods said. "I didn't speak to my father before the final round, but I knew he was watching and I'm sure he will be unhappy with my putting. He'll be telling me a few things."

His four-day effort on and around par, on a course redesigned expressly to limit the ascendancy he can so easily claim when all is well in his mind and his heart, retained a chance of success until his failure on 11. Inevitably, though, there were echoes of the old defiance of the odds ­ most notably when a beautiful approach shot to the 13th green left him with a six-foot putt for an eagle.

That would have drawn him to within three putts of Mickelson, almost certainly not enough, but then who can say that with any conviction when the Tiger is on the heels of any rival? Perhaps not Mickelson if he heard the great roar which would have signalled still more resistance from Woods. But he didn't. Woods missed the putt, and then sank to his knees.

He stayed for what seemed an age, and it was hard to guess what was going through his head. Still, we would try. We would speculate on the degree of his strain these past few days and, if we would fair, we'd acknowledge an extra-ordinary effort of will and determination.

In between the warring imperatives of honouring his fathering and producing a competitive performance, there was one vital truth. He had to fight every inch of the way. That he was prepared to do so was evident enough when he completed the last nine holes of his third round yesterday. After apparently slipping out of contention with four bogeys in six holes, he finished with a brilliant save and a birdie at 18.

The putt from 10 feet sent Woods into the clubhouse with a new appetite for the final round. It was one which seethed with the most thrilling possibilities ­ and put old Augusta hands to the challenge of recalling a time when so many heavyweights involved themselves in the climactic phase of the tournament.

The consensus gave the 1975 showdown between Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf an edge over another Nicklaus triumph 11 years later, the acquisition of a sixth Green Jacket at age 46 in the face of the firepower of Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman.

Nicklaus held off Miller and Weiskopf by a single shot, but then another historical comparison came into sight yesterday when Couples fought his way to second place at three-under for the start of the final round. Couples, greying now but with much of that old boyish exuberance still in place, enchanted the crowd with his insistence on claiming a place in what promised to be golf's recreation of the gunfight at the OK Corral.

However, everyone's ambition was still overshadowed by the possibilities of the Tiger over the final back nine...

Before marching off to the clubhouse for a hearty late breakfast, Woods was emphatic that he was still a contender. It was a not unreasonable claim as soon enough the leaderboard announced that he was just two strokes off the lead.

But the eagles, and the glory, were on hold. Last year he announced he couldn't be beaten, and he had that surreal shot to prove it. Now it was a time to absorb the blows and go off to heal the wounds, those that come both on and off the golf course. Until these last few days, he hadn't known so many of these, but now he could say he had at least some of his share. It was a rare thing for him to say as he went into the night.