Did Tiger play it too safe in PGA?

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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.



In search of major No. 15, Tiger Woods made a major miscalculation Saturday. Whether it will cost him remains to be seen but this much can be said: the 91st PGA Championship won't be the coronation it was shaping up as after Woods had held a four-shot lead at the halfway point. Like Jack Nicklaus, Woods likes to pride himself on an uncanny ability to predict what score he needs to shoot on each day of a golf tournament based on the conditions, the pin positions and the talents — or otherwise — of his nearest competitors. Woods got that number wrong Saturday. He began the third round believing that a strategy of playing conservatively, aiming for the fat of the greens, would be enough to maintain his advantage. It was not. Unlike the Woods of 2000 — or certainly the carefree young cub who mowed 'em down at the Masters in '97 — the now 33-year-old sees little virtue in risk-taking. He doesn't look at a sizeable lead after two rounds and try to extend it by firing at pins all day. Instead, he more often plays steadily and, knowing that his rivals have to catch him, waits for the inevitable train wrecks from them as they roll the dice.
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But if there's a hole in his safe-play strategy it was exposed Saturday, when Woods turned in a steady if unspectacular 1-under-par round of 71 at Hazeltine National but saw his cushion at the top of the leaderboard cut to only two strokes. "I thought it was going to be playing a little bit more difficult today, but it wasn't," he admitted afterward. "They gave us a lot of room on a lot of these pins, so you could be fairly aggressive. "I just felt that with my lead, I erred on the side of caution most of the time. "If I did have a good look at it, a good number at it, I took aim right at it, otherwise I was just dumping the ball on the green and two-putting." Typically when Woods employs such a strategy he will always throw in a couple of long birdies — there's never been a better long putter — and take advantage of the par 5s. After converting a 5-footer for birdie on the second hole, he was on his way. But the game wasn't quite there and neither was his range on the greens. Woods would three-putt the fourth hole for bogey, then not make another birdie outside of a rather fortuitous chip-in on the 14th. That he failed to convert any chances on the four par 5s will particularly burn. Perhaps Woods' lack of success on the greens stemmed from having to watch Vijay Singh, who far from challenging Woods in the final pairing Saturday, reminded us all of what a truly hapless putter he is.
It's a testament to his constitution that Singh — who stumbled to a 75 — still has the desire to tee it up after missing so many 3-footers. But while Singh was putting himself out of the tournament, Padraig Harrington was climbing back into the ring. With Woods failing to capitalize, Harrington took his chances. He was 4 under for the day — 7 under for the tournament — after a birdie on the driveable par-4 14th and was unlucky not to have birdied the next. However, for the second straight day, the Irishman bogeyed the last to give Woods the comfort of sleeping on a two- instead of one-shot lead. "We have nothing to lose," said Harrington, the defending champion of Sunday's showdown. "Everybody expects it's going to be him, so we get a free run at it." That much is certainly true. All the pressure will be on Woods. But that isn't anything new. Consider that the last time he lost a third-round lead that he held alone on the PGA Tour was the first time he was in that situation. Woods lost at the 1996 Quad Cities Classic, making Ed Fiori the answer to a trivia question. Twice since — both at East Lake in Atlanta — he's not gone on to win while holding a share of the third-round lead but never has he lost a major when he's started the final round with the lead. He is, unequivocally, the greatest front-runner in sports. But he will have a battle on his hands — perhaps not necessarily from playing partner Y.E. Yang, who inspired all sorts of confidence by saying he would "try not to go over par" — but certainly from Harrington, who almost stared him down last week in Akron. "We are fighting for a major championship," said Woods, "We are all nervous out there. I'm in the same boat as everyone else, but you've got to go out there and execute shots, and that's the fun and that's the rush and that's the thrill of it. That's why you play hard." And something tells me he will need to play hard.

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