Woods' faithful thrilled by divine display

World No 1 puts disappointment of last year behind him as Bjorn leader and resurgent Sergio spice up the final act
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The Independent Online

You could only pity Mathias Gronberg as he rehearsed his tee shot at the third. All he would have seen were the backs of the fast-disappearing throng as they hurried to follow the progress of the Chosen One. A marshall voiced his displeasure emphatically. "Stand still please," he bellowed. "There are two players in this game!" It was somehow inevitable that his words should fall on deaf ears.

When Tiger Woods is your partner and, what's more, is at the zenith of his game, as he was on the outward journey of his 18 holes here yesterday, during which he contrived to produce two eagles - including one of the shots of the tournament, as, with a chop of his sand wedge under the ball, he managed to hole out after his approach to the 532-yard par five seventh had trickled into a greenside sand trap a good 30 yards from the flag - there is apt to be less than total concentration on his unfortunate travelling companion.

The sheer volume of the crowd's approval could be heard around the course following that magnificent seventh as Woods expressed his own pleasure in typically understated manner, raising both his hands to the skies and shaking with delight after surging into the lead for the first time this week at one under par. But that is the phenomenon that is Woods, a man who has it all, including a website in his honour called The First Church of Tiger Woods, an institution which believes that Tiger Woods is God, and that certain successful shots are the result of some kind of divine intervention.

How his disciples explain him being lost in the wilderness, as he was at the first hole on the first morning of this mercurial display, it is impossible to say. Nor how he managed to bogey three holes on the back nine, which leaves the American still well in contention at one over par, but without being the dominating presence in the tournament he promised to become after those first nine holes.

But certainly there was no lack of his advocates in number or voice yesterday as they clambered on to every vantage point of a course that is made less for sensible shoes and more for crampons, to witness him perform in conditions so different to a year ago at Muirfield.

On one of those days when the skies are cloudless, but for stratospheric feathers of white, it was like being in Death Valley, and for Woods it must have appeared as though he was stranded there on Thursday. What do they say about those damn Yanks? Well, on this occasion it was simple enough: over here and well over par - and that after just one hole. Yet he has recovered with a conviction that has so frequently epitomised his play.

Entering the final day tying for third with names including the charismatic young Spaniard Sergio Garcia, behind the tournament leader, the Dane Thomas Bjorn, followed by Davis Love III, is a different scenario completely to that which he faced at Muirfield. Another fourth-day 65 would suit him nicely, even though Woods has never won a major coming from behind in the final round.

Here there could be no complaint at the elements from the 75 players who set out yesterday. The contours, beautiful to observe for spectators but hellishly intimidating for the players, may provide the most demanding examination for competitors. Laidlaw Purves, whose imagination transformed these bleak, windswept dunes into an 18-hole golf course to rival St Andrews in 1887, has much to answer for.

"It's tough, man," reflected Woods. "When you play most tournaments, you hit a tee shot, you can go ahead and if you hit it down the middle you pick up the tee and don't worry about it. Here you worry about it. You're thinking, 'Please bounce straight'." He added: "Today, Mathias hit some nice tee-shots and got some terrible bounces. And I got two bad bounces and also got a couple of breaks, too. I think from that standpoint it's a little bit more stressful than most tournaments we play in, because good shots aren't always rewarded by being in the fairway."

St George's is anxious to promote its concern about wildlife and conservation issues. On the first hole, we are told, there is perennial ryegrass, Yorkshire fog, false oat-grass and cock's foot, as well as varied bird wildlife. It has not been difficult to identify that two-legged creature of spectacular plumage, Greg Norman, who together with Nick Faldo, both the wrong side of 45, are both surely close to becoming a protected species. Faldo's third round should have provided a stimulus to those followed him. "There's no reason why the others shouldn't shoot a 67, too," he opined with a satisfied growl.

Woods took him at his word, on one of those days when his imperious gait told you everything about his demeanour as he proceeded to execute the shots to match. The measure of the man as a human magnet is that even a mere successfully executed longish putt in practise before setting off to the first tee induced a tumultuous reaction.

Once on the course, he conjured some delicious approach shots. Pars on the first three holes ensued, although the world No 1 and 2000 Open champion appeared to be performing within himself. There was a slight altercation as he went to tee off at the third when a snap-happy spectator distracted him. He was in mid-swing when he heard the click. Somehow he stopped, and directed a glare at the culprit while his caddie, Steve Williams, pointed out forcibly that there should be no cameras on the course.

We did not expect the incident to faze Woods. It did not. At the next hole, a splendid drive allowed him to secure his first eagle of the round with a 20-yard putt. Onwards he strode. A police car appeared on the road nearby and parked up. Two members of Kent Constabulary embraced the scene. Not a security problem here, though; just a couple of officers determined to admire the spectacle of the world's best golfer in full flow. He doesn't disappoint them, or us, engineering that memorable eagle at the seventh.

Oh, and lest we forget, Gronberg finished only four shots behind his partner for the tournament. He's far from out of it, either. But this was a day when the Open crowd had eyes only for the Tiger.