“Even par,” Tiger Woods said with a sigh of his Saturday round of 70, “is about right.”
Except, of course, that it was about wrong.
Woods needed to make his move in the third round of the 141st Open Championship. The The 15th major he’s sought for four years and a month beckoned.
And after holding a share of the midway lead at last month’s US Open and fading on the weekend, Woods needed to show the world — and, maybe more importantly, himself — that he still could bring it for the big ones, not just regular PGA tour events.
But instead, on an uncommonly pleasant day by the Lancashire coast, Woods stalled.
It wasn’t the capitulation that his third round at the Olympic Club was, but the effect may just end up being the same. Because while Woods was treading water, the likable Australian Adam Scott reclaimed the lead and grew it, to five over Woods and four over Graeme McDowell and Brandt Snedeker.
And while Woods again played the inward nine at Royal Lytham & St. Annes at 1 over par, McDowell came home in 33 to insert himself into the final pairing with Scott and throw Woods back into the penultimate group, where he’ll play with second-round leader Snedeker, who finished with a disappointing 73.
And while Woods was making three birdies and three bogeys, Zach Johnson, who won what he calls his “fifth major” last week at his hometown John Deere Classic, gave himself a shot at a real major by shooting 5 under over the final 15 holes on a course starting to bare its teeth.
Good scores, then, could be shot.
Woods doesn’t betray much in the way of emotions in these settings, and was his usual stoic self as he stood on the first tee with Thorbjorn Olesen, a 22-year-old Dane who made no secret of the fact that Woods was his hero.
But as so often has been the case with Woods lately, his start set the tone for his day.
On Saturday, he muscled a mid-iron into the 198-yard par-3 opening hole on a lower trajectory than the shot required and watched his ball roll through the green.
Still, it wasn’t a difficult up-and-down. But Woods failed to chip well and missed about an 8-footer for par. A shoddy short game cost him another stroke on the third.
The tone had been set. By then it was obvious that his frustration was growing.
“It was not a very good start,” he later bemoaned.
Woods rebounded, however, dropping a long birdie putt on the sixth, then abandoning his conservative strategy of irons off the tee on the par-5 seventh, lashing a driver so he had just a 4- iron into the green, which led to a tap-in birdie.
After sticking a short iron to 5 feet on the par-3 ninth, Woods sank the putt to get to 7 under par.
The galleries roared — finally, they were seeing Tiger Woods, owner of 14 major championships. He was charging. Except that charge never materialized.
On the 10th, he had just 100 yards into the green but gave himself no realistic look at birdie, and on the par-5 11th, he again insisted on taking an iron and again failed to make birdie.
“Just didn’t get anything going on that back nine,” Woods said. “I thought I had a couple of good looks at some putts and didn’t make them, and misread the putt there at 15.”
When Woods was asked about failing to birdie at the 11th — Scott, by the way, birdied both par-5s again on Saturday — his response indicated his broader frustrations.
“There are plenty of opportunities out there besides the par-5s,” he said. “I’ve had a bunch of 9-irons on down into some of these flags. Those are the holes you also have to birdie.”
It must be chafing Woods that he’s almost worse the closer he gets to the green.
Nine-irons and wedges are scoring irons, but just as he did at the Greenbrier Classic two weeks ago, where he missed the cut, Woods can’t rely on them to be accurate. So now he’s left himself at the mercy of Scott.
With a forecast of high winds coming off the Irish Sea on Sunday and the probability that the pins again will be put on knobs and mounds, it’s unlikely there will be many low scores at Lytham. So Woods, and the rest of the chasing pack, will need Scott to come back to them.
Even though he’s not won a major, Scott’s won big tournaments before — last year’s Bridgestone Invitational and The Players — and is a proven front-runner, converting 16 of 18 third-round leads in his career.
“If I play a good round of golf tomorrow, it will be very hard for the others to beat me,” he said.
Woods was asked about Scott, who almost grew up in Woods’ shadow in golf as they once shared the same coach, Butch Harmon, and a remarkably similar swing.
(Scott also has Steve Williams, Woods’ estranged caddie, on his bag, and don’t think Williams wouldn’t revel in his man beating Woods to the claret jug.)
Is Woods surprised that it’s taken Scott this long to have a legitimate shot at winning a major?
“I think so,” Woods said. “What is he, 32 or something like that?
“He’s been out here a long time. And he’s won a Players Championship, but I don’t think he’s really done probably as well as he’d like to in major championships.
“But I think that he’s maturing his game, and I think over the last maybe year or so he’s really improved.”
Woods would’ve loved testing that game in the final pairing on Sunday, but that chance passed him by on a Saturday that demanded more of him than he could give.