HOYLAKE, England -- Tiger Woods couldn't even see the flag,
but he knew his 4-iron was close to perfect. Thousands of fans who
were crammed elbow-to-elbow on a grassy hillock above the 14th
green saw the ball bang into the cup, but they had no idea who hit
Seconds later, when Woods emerged from behind a row of bunkers
and high-fived his caddie, the mystery was over.
The question Friday was whether the British Open was over, too.
Woods put on a clinic with his long irons, none more spectacular
than his eagle from 209 yards on one of the toughest holes at Royal
Liverpool. It carried him to a 7-under 65, matching his best score
ever in a major, and gave him a one-shot lead over Ernie Els.
"I was just trying to land the ball on the front edge and let
it chase on there and get my 4 and go on," Woods said. "It
happened to go in."
But when asked whether the tournament was over, Woods tapped the
"I'm not here with the [claret] jug," he said. "We've got a
long way to go, man."
Even so, his name atop the leaderboard is a daunting sight at
Grand Slam events. This is the seventh time Woods has had the
36-hole lead in a major, and he has never lost from out front.
That didn't seem to bother Els. When the Big Easy headed to the
first tee, the scoreboard already showed Woods at 12 under par.
Instead of getting spooked, Els was inspired.
"If he's 12 under, there's some birdies to be made out there,"
Els said. "I had to get my share of them."
Els made birdie on all the par 5s, and picked up two more
strokes with shots that were every bit as good as Woods', though
not quite as dramatic. One was a bump-and-run 7-iron that stopped
rolling 2 feet from the cup on No. 3, the other a 4-iron into 15
feet left of the flag on the 14th. He made birdie from just short
of the par-5 18th for his 65.
All along, his target was Woods and that posted score of
"I didn't want to back down," Els said. "I really was trying
to get into this final group. I haven't been in this position for a
while. I'd love to play as well or even better on the weekend.
Maybe I'll have to."
It will be the first time Woods and Els have played in the final
group at a major since the last round of the 2000 U.S. Open,
although that was hardly a fair fight. Woods had a 10-shot lead,
and wound up winning by 15.
But with two days remaining, the British Open was hardly a
Chris DiMarco, whose mother died of a heart attack July 4,
emerged from his slump with a 65 and was three shots behind at
9-under 135. Another shot back was two-time U.S. Open champion
Retief Goosen, who had a 66.
Still, it all starts with Woods, who is trying to become the
first back-to-back British Open champion since Tom Watson in
"Tiger at his best is hard to beat," said DiMarco, who lost a
playoff to Woods in the Masters last year. "Tiger at a course he
likes at his best is really hard to beat. All I can do is go out
and try to play the best golf I can play. Anything can happen in 36
Masters champion Phil Mickelson will need a lot to happen. He
never got anything going in his 71, leaving him eight shots behind.
That still leaves him in better shape than Vijay Singh, who started
bogey-double bogey on his way to a 76, missing the cut for the
first time in 15 majors.
What might make Woods tough to catch is the caution with which
he is playing Royal Liverpool.
Woods has hit only one driver in two rounds, opting for a 2-iron
off most par 4s and a 3-wood on the par 5s with the ground so firm
and the pot bunkers lurking on every fairway. That leaves him
longer irons into the green, but that was no problem.
Nothing was more magical than his 4-iron in the second round,
even from short range.
Woods' approach to the par-5 fifth hole went over the green and
down the slope. He used a 4-iron to scoot the ball up the hill and
down toward the flag, the ball stopped 6 inches behind the cup.
Then came a 4-iron from 190 yards on the 12th hole that was pure,
stopping 12 feet away. Woods missed the putt, but the swing stuck
in his memory, and it was instant recall two holes later.
He again laid well back of the bunkers -- Woods often spotted
short-hitting Nick Faldo some 30 yards off the tee -- and had 194
yards to the front of the 14th green.
"I was basically hitting the same shot, just trying to hold the
ball in the wind," he said. "And I really hit it flush and held
it nicely. I hit it on my line -- I was looking at the left edge of
the TV tower -- and if the wind blows it over, that's fine."
He watched it as long as he could, then was startled to hear the
cheers, and see the British fans raise their arms in unison. It was
a muted cheer, nothing like the roar of Augusta National or
Bethpage Black, partially because it happened so fast and no one
was quite sure who hit it.
"It went in?" Woods asked caddie Steve Williams.
Indeed, it did. The gallery gave him a standing ovation when
Woods was still 50 yards from the green.
Back in the fairway, Williams jokingly tried to make Woods carry
"We keep hitting the perfect 4-iron," Williams said he told
him. "I'll give you the bag, and I'll just carry the 4-iron."
The only blemish for Woods was a bogey on the third hole when he
found the rough, and failing to birdie the par-5 18th after pulling
his 3-wood into the left rough, making him play well short of the
Els usually winds up on the short end against Woods. He has
finished second to him seven times, far more than any other player,
including a playoff loss in the Dubai Desert Classic earlier this
year when Els hit into the water.
He knows about Woods' record as the leader, and that pushed him
as he played the final nine late in the afternoon.
"I didn't want to get crazy aggressive, but I needed to keep
the foot on the pedal," Els said. "As you know, and as I know,
he's quite a good front-runner, so you need to reach out and try to
hold him back. He's not going to back down from a lead."