Woods opens up crucial gap over pursuers

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The momentum Woods created has brought a raising of standards, an increase in the number of men who can mount serious challenges for major championships and briefly the loss of his world No 1 ranking to Vijay Singh. For a while Woods appeared to be in denial.

He split from his long-time coach, Butch Harmon, and worked on swing changes, possibly to deal with the effect of an injury to his knee that required surgery, and to help protect his back from the strain imposed by violent torque.

Taking this year's form into account it was no surprise when Woods was quoted as the 5-2 favourite - the odds came into 5-4 after his opening round of 66 - to win at St Andrews this week. There was an ominous certainty about his play on Thursday, his ball striking back to the level of his golden period. Speaking recently, Woods's caddie, Steve Williams, said: "I never expected to see anyone match what Tiger achieved five years ago, but here he is doing it all over again."

Of equal importance was Woods's mood. He appeared to be in complete control of his game, constructing a round, knowing when to play conservatively, when to be adventurous. It seemed that the old aura of invincibility that caused so many of his rivals to falter when in contention had returned.

When waiting to tee off at around 1.30 pm yesterday, playing with Jose Maria Olazabal and Robert Allenby, the world No 1 stood about 30 yards from Singh as the Fijian lined up an eight-foot putt on the 18th green. Had Singh made the putt it would have given him the outright lead at seven under. The ball slid past but Woods was expressionless.

He was lost in the task up ahead, the determination to break away from the chasing pack clearly showing on his face. Dressed in dark colours, Woods looked up to the sky, checking for the feel of a breeze, took out a three iron and drilled the ball down the fairway. The construction was under way. Time enough to attack.

A sudden freshening of the breeze was a test of Woods's ability to move the ball left and right, and a three wood from the second tee flew way off line. His approach was loose too, causing him to mutter "dammit" as sand flew up into his face. This rare technical error was repaired with a delicate chip and a putt for par.

Woods struck his first blow at the 397-yard par-four third. A huge drive was followed by a great approach leaving him with an easy putt for birdie. He had the outright lead. He was hitting fairways, and looking flawless on the greens from within 10 feet, one of his game's strong features.

After finding the middle of the fourth fairway, unable to see from the tee that his ball had bounded along the rolling terrain, Woods leaked a six-iron well left of the green leaving him a long uphill putt that went left to right before settling in a spot from where par could be scored.

It was not scintillating stuff, but the bricks were being put into place as Woods came to the first of the par fives, the 568-yard fifth. With the pin set right, Woods blasted the ball to an attacking position. A two-putt birdie took him two shots clear.

Woods's demeanour had barely changed since he had stood impassively on the first tee. At the next hole, however, he drove way left towards the 13th tee, disgust registering on his face. When Woods got a flier with his second shot, sending it skipping through the green, it looked as though he was about to give a shot back, but dropping shots was not on the agenda of a man whose victory at St Andrews in 2000 included, remarkably, not finding one of the course's 112 bunkers. A pitch and a putt must have felt like a shot saved.

Going into the loop between holes seven and 11 provided Woods with an opportunity to separate himself further from the field. He began it with two pars, birdied the ninth in a manner that was almost routine in application, before striking again at the 10th, this time spectacularly.

With trouble down the left side, the 10th is 380 yards from tee to green. Woods made it one hit, two putts taking him to 10 under. Another birdie came at the dangerous par-five 14th. On the 16th green a smile crossed Woods's features, and he pursed his lips when a birdie attempt just slid by.

At the 17th he failed to convert a birdie opportunity, his first serious miss of the day, lipping the cup from four feet and further trouble came at the last when after a protracted pre-shot routine in which he checked the plane of his swing four or five times, he drove the ball wildly left, ending up a yard short of railings.

Woods made par, but in his terms he may as well have dropped two shots in two holes.