Whenever Tiger Woods is struggling -- and struggling for Woods means finishing top-five instead of winning -- the knee-jerk reaction is to focus on how far astray he is hitting his driver. Wrong club to talk about, persimmon breath. The key for Woods always has been and always will be his putter. When he is feeling it with the flat stick, he can make up for other parts of his game that may not be hitting on all cylinders. And when the putts are falling and he is hitting other clubs well, Woods is unbeatable.
A shaky third round with the putter by Woods let a bunch of guys back into this British Open, setting up a Sunday that has the potential to be extremely exciting. What happened Saturday, pretty much, is that Woods squandered an opportunity to break clear of the pack and put away his 11th major title.
Three-putting three times on the inward nine (albeit once from just off the green), Woods posted a very human 71 in the third round -- nowhere near as impressive as the 67-65 he opened with -- to finish 54 holes at 13-under. What that did was allow some other guys -- most notably Sergio Garcia -- to put up low numbers and get right back in the ball game. Garcia's 65 put him in a tie for second after three rounds with Chris DiMarco and Ernie Els, just one stroke behind Woods. The shock here is that the way Tiger played the first two rounds, just about everyone, including me, expected him to put up a little 66 on Saturday to build the kind of lead going into the final round that he never surrenders.
But while Woods allowed suspense to work its way back into the storyline, let's not lose sight of the fact that he is one of the great closers in the history of golf. A one-stroke lead for Woods is like a five-stroke lead for most other players, especially on a golf course where he just about never has to take out the one club that can get him into trouble -- the driver. But the scariest thing Woods did on Saturday was that he made it possible for someone not playing with him Sunday to get hot and steal the silver Claret Jug.
Two strokes behind Woods at 11-under are Jim Furyk and Angel Cabrera. Another stroke back is Hideto Tanihara, with Mark Calcavecchia and Adam Scott lurking at 9-under. So what we have here is Woods being chased by Els (a three-time major champion, including at the British), Furyk (a U.S. Open champion), Calcavecchia (his name's also on the Jug), Garcia and Scott (two young guys for whom a major title seems inevitable). The guy who gets the bad break here is Garcia. He has to play with Woods on Sunday in the final twosome. They will be immediately preceded by Els and DiMarco, who will be playing behind Furyk and Cabrera.
If there is a guy positioned nicely to post a 65 on Sunday and put some pressure on Woods, it is Scott. That is especially true because of the fact Hoylake ends with two par-5s in the last three holes. Scott could do something dramatic -- like make an eagle or two -- before Tiger gets to those holes, and, my, wouldn't that create some drama?
In fact, it could very well be that the best part of a very ordinary course is the fact that it ends with a couple of par-5 holes. Someone four strokes back with three holes to play will still very much be in this golf tournament.
There is another factor that makes this not necessarily a slam-dunk for Tiger, even though he has won all 10 of his major championships going into Sunday with at least a share of the lead. The greens at Royal Liverpool have neither the speed nor the contour of those at The Masters or any U.S. Open course. At Hoylake, when you are standing over a six-footer, you don't have to worry about the seven-footer you will have coming back if you miss. You can gun the putt for the cup. That is a huge benefit for guys who are not all that confident with their putter -- like Garcia, Scott, DiMarco and Els.
After 36 holes, there was pretty much no reason to think Sunday would have any drama. On Friday night, this tournament had the feeling of one of those 10-stroke routes by Woods. Now it is set up for an extremely compelling finish with nine guys going into the final 18 holes within four strokes of each other. And the two guys four strokes back -- Scott and 46-year-old Calcavecchia, who won the 1989 British Open -- are definitely in the hunt because there are low scores to be found at Royal Liverpool.
There are two things we can be sure of Sunday at Royal Liverpool. First, the guy whose name is engraved into the Claret Jug will have a final-round score starting with a "6." This will not be a day on which par is your friend. Second, that guy won't be Phil Mickelson -- unless he can put up a score than begins with a "5." A 73 on Saturday pretty much eliminated Lefty from contention, dropping him 10 strokes behind Woods. The good news for Phil is that he will be finished in time to watch the last nine holes on TV.
And that should be well worth the watching, thanks to the fact that Tiger opened the door to some big-name challengers.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor for Golf World magazine