The Open 2004

Woods a hostage to caution as accuracy of old returns

After Tiger Woods completed his second round on Friday, trailing Skip Kendall by six shots, he heard a silly question. "Would you prefer to be up with the leaders or in the chasing pack," the world number one was asked. "I would prefer to be 20 shots clear," Woods replied, an indulgent smile on his face.

After Tiger Woods completed his second round on Friday, trailing Skip Kendall by six shots, he heard a silly question. "Would you prefer to be up with the leaders or in the chasing pack," the world number one was asked. "I would prefer to be 20 shots clear," Woods replied, an indulgent smile on his face.

The days when Woods' very presence sent shivers of apprehension through the rest of the field, when his shot-making often bordered on the miraculous, have been replaced by a tussle to regain the form that saw him widely acclaimed as the greatest player the game has seen.

If there is plenty of substance in Woods' assertion that the difference between then and now is marginal, that he isn't far short of the towering standards of 2000 when, at 24, he equalled Ben Hogan's record of winning three major championships in the same year, the flaws are apparent in the defensive attitude he now adopts. Where Woods was once capable of running away with tournaments now he plays conservatively. Where he once was thrillingly bold now he has become cautious.

Woods is judged by the peaks of his achievement, not by consistently finishing in the top 10, nor by an impressive stroke average and a record of 125 consecutive cuts, but by the resounding impact he made quickly after turning professional in 1996. Is the slump really a slump? Does the past haunt him?

From appearing to be unassailable in the world rankings, Woods has fallen back into a group of four leading players with Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson. If Els wins at Troon and Woods finishes worse than 17th, the South African will take over as world number one. It was suggested this week that Woods would not consider that to be a massive blow to his pride.

"I really don't think it would bother him," a long-time observer of Woods said. "Tiger has never been entirely comfortable with fame. He's a pretty private guy, doesn't like people intruding on his life. I think that explains why he gets irritated with suggestions that he should seek help with his swing."

Had Woods not missed four putts from four feet over the opening two days he would have been just one shot instead of five off the lead when he set out on the third round yesterday with the young Australian Adam Scott. Some say, cruelly, that he swings like Woods used to.

The early morning rain had cleared up, leaving the players to contend with the fresh breeze that blew from right to left across the first fairway when Woods stepped on to the tee with a driving iron in his hands. To put himself in contention Woods needed a score of around 65, a stiff task in conditions that didn't encourage adventurous golf, and were expected to worsen later in the afternoon.

Going for position rather than distance, Woods found the middle of the fairway and sent his approach to 12 feet. One putt. Flying start. The size of the gallery following Woods was a contradiction of the proposal that he has a lot of the public's attention, and a roar went up when he sank a six-footer at the second to reach three under for the tournament.

If Woods still hadn't got back his old tempo he was nevertheless playing effective golf, making his third birdie of the day when he sank a 4ft putt at the par-five fourth. As news of Woods' progress spread, the crowd following him grew in numbers. The first error came at the Postage Stamp, just 123 yards from tee to green but one of the trickiest holes on the course. Taking a nine-iron when a less lofted club might have done the job better, Woods hit the ball fat, causing earth to fly up into his face. He chipped short but an immaculate putting stroke saved par.

The received wisdom about playing Troon is to make a score on the front nine and defend it on the way home. Conforming to that strategy, Woods struck again at the par-four seventh to climb further up the leaderboard. Drawing no inspiration from his partner's form, Scott was moving in the opposite direction, giving back both of the birdies he had made on front nine.

When Woods reached the turn in 32 he was in joint fifth place but needed all his imagination and short-game skills to make saves at the next two holes. At the 12th, however, a wayward tee shot proved beyond those powers of recovery, leading to his first bogey of the day.

Luck favoured Woods at the 15th when his approach kicked just short of the putting surface instead of catching the rough. A beautifully judged putt set up a safe par, leaving him to negotiate the three tough closing holes.

The power Woods unleashed at the next was matched by the accuracy that has been absent from his driving, a clear sign that he may at last be turning things around. However, he was unable to advance from there, completing his 68 with three pars. These days Woods just hovers.

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