Tiger exits empty-handed after putting lets him down

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The Independent Online

Raf Leuchars to Orlando, Florida is a familiar routing for Tiger Woods's private jet but last night the in-flight service lacked a certain elegance. Usually – well, at least in 2000 and 2005 – Woods and guests could wile away the hours by sipping the beverage of their choice from the Claret Jug. Not this time. The most valuable cargo in golf was not on the manifest.

Woods had the chance to become the first player to win three Open Championships at the home of the game. It did not work out and even a change back to his old putter yesterday could not spark a miracle comeback.

A couple of early birdies hinted at a top-ten finish at least but two double bogeys in the first seven holes put paid to that hope. Despite that opening 67 which suggested a return to his favourite course might rekindle his best form, it was not to be. The world No 1 closed with a 72 to come in at three under par and outside the top 20.

Woods finished so far behind the new champion that it was wheels up well before Louis Oosthuizen inevitably took possession of the Claret Jug. Shouldn't it be Tiger doing the runaway victory processions? Not these days; golf has changed that much.

He has simply been unable to recapture his previous invincible form. His memories of the week? "I didn't win," he said with stark brevity. If there was a silver lining, on his first appearance overseas since he was engulfed in scandal last winter, it was his reception from the St Andrews gallery at the 18th hole. "The people have been fantastic all week," he said. "Unfortunately I wasn't in the lead but still it was very warm."

A decade ago it was Woods who was running away with the championships. He was untouchable. He won the US Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes and then the Open at St Andrews by eight.

Five years later he led from start to finish but his 14th and last major victory came at the US Open in 2008, where he hobbled to his most extraordinary triumph but was undergoing knee surgery days later.

Part of his desire to return to competitive play this season, after spending the early part of the year in therapy and trying to stay out of the public eye, was because the major schedule looked like his list of most favourable courses. Seven of his 14 major titles had come at Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St Andrews.

This was the season for him to take a serious stab at getting closer to Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major titles. But they have come and gone. "That's just the way it goes," he said. "I'm not going to win all of them. I've lost a lot more than I've won. The good news is that I've half of my majors away from these venues."

His frustration here was partly due to his fine driving, traditionally the weak part of his game. But he could not make the putts that always, always saved him. "It's ironic, as soon as I start driving it on a string, I miss everything," he said. "Maybe I should go back to spraying it all over the lot and make everything."

For the first three rounds Woods had switched from his usual Scotty Cameron putter, which he had used for the last 11 years and for 13 of his major wins, because he struggled with it on slow greens. After three rounds only four of the 77 weekend qualifiers had taken more than his 99 putts. He had 35 on Saturday alone as he missed chance after chance to get in position for a run yesterday.

It was a short affair, for want of a better description. For the final round, with the greens running a tad faster as they dried out from the rain earlier in the week, he switched back to his trusty old friend. He holed birdie putts at the first and the third and his overall tally for the round dropped to 27.

But it was the bunkers that got him. At the fourth he left a shot in a greenside bunker and at the seventh he drove up against the face of a trap and had to hit out backwards. Both mistakes cost double bogeys.

"I've got to keep building my game, putting things back to where they're more consistent day in, day out," he said. "I got to build that positive momentum and not have those holes like today where it breaks momentum."

Woods admitted he had struggled to practise his putting in the windy conditions last week. "It was really hard to do your work here," he said. "When the wind is really whipping, you're not anchored so it's hard to do your drills."

It is easy for professionals to blame their putting when it is their long game that is putting pressure on the work on the greens. At St Andrews, players will always be faced with a number of long putts on the huge greens but it was a mark of his precision from tee-to-green on his previous two visits that he was able to stay out of the bunkers and avoid really long putts.

That was not the case this time. He summed up: "Driving-wise, better than it's been in years. Iron play, not quite as sharp as I need to have it. But my putting is way off."

He still has one more chance to win a major this year at the USPGA next month. It may take many long hours indeed on the practice putting green to rediscover the winning touch.