For two days we had witnessed the American's taming of the dunes, just as he had done in 2000, with a similar devastation of the field. It had been further evidence of that excellence reborn since 2000, that summer when he claimed three majors, the last of which was the Open here with a course record 269. On that occasion, he had not found a sand-trap on any day - those defiant sentries, or as one authority once put it, those "greedy lurking enemies". They are clustered around the greens like a pock-marked face, but Woods had picked his spot, so to speak, as only he knows how.
Now he was back, with that menace returned to his game. In the wake of his fourth Green Jacket at Augusta in April and a second place behind Michael Campbell in the US Open last month, it has been a renaissance which has presented a caustic response to those who had nodded knowingly at Woods' supposed decline into the ranks of the mere mortal élite; those who believed that supplies of the stardust strewn over him had been exhausted.
By yesterday afternoon, though, when the gusting began in earnest and the vagaries of the elements began to enjoy their malign influence, there was suddenly a view blowing in the wind that this could remain a true contest at the start of the final day. And who knows, one involving that perennial pretender, and Woods' third-day partner, Colin Montgomerie?
Woods had displayed evidence of his discomfort, first at the second hole when he bogeyed by three-putting, the second of those attempts lipping out of the hole, much to his chagrin. That was his first dropped shot in 22 holes since the 16th on Thursday.
Then on the fourth, we witnessed just how distracted by the gusts the world No 1 had become. He missed the green with his approach and required an age to line up, throwing tufts of grass into the air in order to discern the effect it was having. Even after preparation he was not satisfied with the result. "Any time you want wind," he exclaimed, his mind, for a moment, on a personal battle with the gods rather than Montgomerie and Co. Nevertheless, Woods managed a par and then seemed to have recovered with a two-putt birdie on the par-five fifth.
However, a drive went seriously adrift on the sixth and found the gorse bushes. It cost him a penalty shot and now, at 10 under par, he was only one clear of Retief Goosen, who had been closing inexorably, with Montgomerie and Sergio Garcia another shot behind.
Meanwhile, Monty, who had started the day as leader of the chasing pack, had quietly got on with the job. The Scot had never finished better than eighth at an Open, and when he had found the Swilcan Burn with his first shot of the tournament his countrymen had prepared themselves for a suitable lament on the pipes, ready to greet the despair of the big man once again.
But by the Friday, we had witnessed what appeared something remarkably like a new man. He has a new girlfriend, Jo Baldwin - a year after that period when he opened his heart so frequently about his marriage disintegration it was like watching Christian Barnard at work -- and what appears a new disposition. In the early holes here yesterday, those which generally tend to inflict a loss rather than a profit, the ones which demand you just escape with par, the Scot was the essence of jauntiness. He was certainly not unprepared. For two and half hours before teeing off, he had launched innumerable putts on the practice areas.
Still there were doubts, not least amongst his compatriots. Would a head-to-head conflict with Woods inspire or intimidate him? After all, the American had shot 65 to the Scot's 74 when they last met in a major, the 1997 Masters. Or would he prevail, just as he had done over that opponent, in last year's Ryder Cup, albeit that the famous victory was via matchplay. Beforehand, Montgomerie had remarked that: "It's difficult to play with everything revolving around Woods. I'm not blaming him for that. It's the way it is. I've been around a long time and I should be able to cope." He also reminded us that: "It's a 28-mile walk, and I've only gone 14."
Montgomerie felt that racing in Woods' slipstream can be an advantage, but pointed out that if "Tiger stutters at all, and stuttering is a couple under for Tiger, well that gives us a chance". Indeed, many would suggest that the focus on the American should actually benefit the Scot and that's the way it transpired. He opened up with four pars before claiming a birdie on the fifth. Woods, meanwhile, had recovered his composure sufficiently to card a birdie on the seventh despite his approach screwing well beyond the flag.
Both went over the green on the downwind eighth, but Woods chipped to four feet to save par and Montgomerie putted up within inches of the flag for his three. Intriguingly, by the 12th the Scot was only a shot behind.
Woods, the last man to win an Open here, and at the start of play odds-on to to repeat that, responded defiantly to the pressure. But the Scot, who still craves that elusive major, was determined that by nightfall his opponent should not, in effect, be the last man standing.Reuse content