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Woods slams home the message

Brawn and brain, ferocity and finesse, caddie with tactical nous: How Tiger keep his distance from the rest

It takes considerable skill to get under the skin of the Big Easy. Ernie Els would swat flies elegantly, then apologise. So when he showed more than a degree of irritation in the interview room two evenings ago, the eruption of Krakatoa could hardly have caused a bigger reaction.

It takes considerable skill to get under the skin of the Big Easy. Ernie Els would swat flies elegantly, then apologise. So when he showed more than a degree of irritation in the interview room two evenings ago, the eruption of Krakatoa could hardly have caused a bigger reaction.

The South African had just recorded the best score in the opening round of the 129th Open Championship, so had a right to be feeling pleased with himself. "Put it this way, Ernie," came the first questioner in reference to a distant second place in the US Open, "you can't imagine being 15 strokes behind Tiger Woods this week."

"Guys, that's a little unfair," Ernie replied in exasperation. "I just shot 66, talk about my round or just get on the phone." Nothing yesterday altered the fact that these days, win or lose, Tiger Woods is the epicentre of major tournaments. Today, if all goes according to what seems a preordained script, Woods will become the youngest player - and only the fifth ever - to complete the grand slam of major titles. It will be a parade quite as grand as the oneaccorded Jack Nicklaus for his farewell on Friday.

Three successive birdies just after the turn put clear blue water between Woods and his retreating posse of pursuers yesterday. With apologies to Els, the world number one is starting to transform a game of infinite complexity, particularly over as idiosyncratic a course as St Andrews, into a primary school exercise and, in the process, reducing some great players to the status of stooges.

"At the moment, Tiger is at least a shot a day better than anyone else," says Stuart Appleby, who would actually have beaten Woods in Waterville in the build-up to The Open, but for disqualification. "He has a sixth gear when everyone else has five."

Quite what gear Wood engaged early in his third round was hard to deduce. Short of his playing partner, David Toms, off the first tee, he laid up 40 yards short of his fellow American on the second and paid the penalty on the green. Faced with a 20-yard putt for birdie, Woods for once misjudged the length and missed the return for par, his first bogey in 64 holes of Championship golf.

Talk about cautious, this was Republican golf. Perhaps the overnight contemplation of 62 holes without a bogey, a figure which seemed to surprise him, had provoked such a conservative attitude. Perhaps, like the ancient makers of Persian carpets, who would deliberately weave a mistake into their pattern to let out the devil, Tiger was simply fending off notions of infallibility. He birdied the following hole, just in case human failing became a habit. Bogeys at the second and the 17th, a three putt after a delicate iron on to the green, were rare blemishes, "little mess-ups", as he termed them.

It was not until the eighth that Woods shed his lethargy, stroking an iron to three feet and moving two shots ahead of Els and Steve Flesch, the surprise package of this Open, with the birdie putt. A little punch of fists with Steve Williams, his influential caddie, signalled another birdie at the par-four ninth.

The renewed spirit of competition brought The Open back to life, though not for long. Before then, there seemed no pressing reason why the Claret Jug should not take the direct route from the boot of Paul Lawrie's car to the engraver's workshop and on to the overcrowded mantelpiece of the Woods home in Orlando, Florida, to be loaned back to the Royal and Ancient for a four-day period every July.

Woods' dominance owes nothing to the spectacular golf that has characterised the American's rise to omnipotence and everything to the studied calm of the experienced crossword puzzler. At times, notably at Carnoustie last year, Woods' conservatism in the face of a ferocious course cost him dear. It was as if he was denying his own powers. According to those closest to him, the arrival of Williams at the start of the season has added a critical extra tactical element to Woods' game.

"They make good, strong, confident decisions together," Nick Price, who partnered Woods on the first two days, said. "Squeeky [Price's late caddie] and I had a sixth sense about shots and these two have the same. Steve doesn't get the recognition he deserves." The size of his pay packet is some compensation. Williams was recently listed as New Zealand's top-earning sportsman. "He can just read me," Woods says. "To the point where he knows when to say something and when not to. And we genuinely like being around each other." With rounds lasting up to six hours during the first two days, it was just as well.

Power alone does not frighten rivals - John Daly has tons of it - the combination of brawn and brain does. "He seems to have learnt as much about the game in 24 years as I have in 43," added Price.

The spectacular shots have been confined to a minimum, mostly it has been routine officework. Like his height, you are never quite sure about the source of the brilliance. Sometimes, you sense that, in the absence of notable challenges from course, nature or opponent, he puts himself into some difficult positions just to keep his mind working. His inelegant hack out of the rough at the Road Hole on Thursday was followed by a well-manufactured recovery from the scrubby grass in front of the road on Friday. "I would love to see it get windy," Woods said. "It would be nice because I think that is what a British Open - sorry, the Open championship - is all about."

A rage of King Lear proportions might have tested the full range of Tiger's repertoire, which, in practice, included an experimental blast with a five-iron at the face of one of the deepest bunkers. The theory was that the ball would ricochet back on to the fairway. Others think fleetingly of playing shots like that and reject them just as quickly. The difference with Woods is that his natural ability matches his fertile imagination. And the equally daunting fact is that the American - Cablasian, as he calls himself, an amalgamation of Caucasian, Black and Asian - not only relishes the challenges of links golf, an enthusiasm not shared by some of his countrymen, but has adapted his game with remarkable facility to its peculiar demands.

His ability to fashion a shot was nowhere better demonstrated than on the par five fifth hole in his second round. Short of the green in two and faced with a shot from a hollow on to the green with the pin uncomfortably close to the front, Woods chose to putt. For a moment, the ball tottered on the top of the mound before rolling gently down for a tap-in birdie. It was a shot of confidence and feel, but only when Nick Faldo, playing in the following group, had exactly the same shot moments later did the extent of Woods' finesse become apparent. Worried about the ball dropping back down on to his feet, Faldo overcompensated and left his putt 20 feet past the hole. The contrast between current and past champion was too obvious to ignore.

Yesterday's brush with the Road Hole brought a glimpse of Woods' intricate thinking. On the tee, he chose one of the letters out of the sign advertising the Old Course Hotel, dependent on the strength of the wind and how far he wanted to hit the ball. For the second, he flighted a ball two yards to the right in a controlled draw on to the green. "It was a beautiful shot," Woods said. The broad smile siggested as much, though three putts ruined the craftsmanship anyway. Woods will play with David Duval, a good friend, on his final round today. In truth, though, his closest companion for the next decade will be history.