GULLANE, Scotland – Tiger Woods was actually having a pretty good day, though the fans lining the seventh hole might have thought otherwise. They had the misfortune of having to listen as he unleashed a string of loud expletives directed at himself and a ball that bounced over the green into the rough.
Hardly the way a gentleman golfer at the British Open is supposed to act, even if no one seemed to take much offense. Not with home favorite Lee Westwood on the green putting for birdie in a championship that even on Saturday was already becoming a two-man show within a show.
The two battled back and forth on a breezy afternoon at Muirfield as if the claret jug would be given out at the end to the winner of their match. They traded shots and they traded the lead in a personal duel that seemed destined to end up all even until Westwood birdied the 17th hole to give himself bragging rights for the day and a bit of a cushion going into the final round of a tournament both are desperate to win.
For Westwood, the math is simple. He’s 40 now and badly in need of a major championship win to validate a career that has been solid in most other ways.
For Woods, it’s a bit more complex. He’s trying to recapture whatever it was he once had to win 14 of these things, including three British Opens. The problem is, even he doesn’t seem to know just what it is.
They won’t be in the final group together because Woods made a bogey on the 17th hole, though it hardly matters. Not to either player, and certainly not to the crowd that has pretty much tuned out Hunter Mahan and a handful of other players bunched on the leader board with a chance of winning this thing.
They mostly want Westwood, but they’ll settle for Woods. And they fully expect one of them to deliver.
So, too, does the best player in the world.
I’ve got 14 of these things, and I know what it takes to win it, Woods said. He’s won tournaments all over the world. He knows how to win golf tournaments.
If Woods is to win this one he’ll have to make up the two shots that separate the two players. That’s something that can happen quickly on the treacherous links of Muirfield, where there were four two-shot swings between Woods and Westwood, including the final one on the 17th.
But there are still questions about Woods’ ability to deliver under pressure in a major, something he hasn’t been able to do ever since his life changed completely when he was caught up in a sex scandal. It’s been five years since he won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, and he’s relying on memories that fade a bit more with every one that gets away when he tries to figure out how to win the big ones.
Woods also has never won a major coming from behind in the final round, which he’ll have to do to win this one. And then there’s the uncomfortable position of having to play in the same group today with Adam Scott, whose caddie was on the bag for Woods in 13 of his majors and who has a publicly testy relationship with his former boss.
If you liked the undercard of Westwood versus Woods, don’t miss the main event with Woods taking on Scott and caddie Steve Williams.
Woods is badly in need of a major win to jump-start his chase of the record of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus. If he doesn’t win here or at the PGA Championship next month, his drought in the majors would be nearing six years.
For Woods, that would be something to really swear about.