Saturday, July 21, 2007

Eight Strokes Behind, Woods Aims to Be Sharper

Sports of The Times
July 22, 2007

Carnoustie, Scotland

When Tiger Woods swung his 2-iron on the first tee Friday, he was two under par for this 136th British Open after a 69 in the first round. But his ball hooked wildly, bouncing left of the fairway past the out-of-bounds stakes and into the water known as Barry’s Burn.

Burn indeed. Burn is the Scottish term for stream, and with a double-bogey 6 there, Woods received a severe burn to his ambition to be the first golfer to win a third consecutive Open championship since Australia’s Peter Thomson half a century ago.

Over two rounds at Carnoustie since then, Woods has been unable to get back to two under for the tournament. Despite a 69 yesterday after a 74 on Friday, he was on a tedious treadmill at only one under, eight strokes off the lead held by Sergio García and behind 13 other rivals going into today’s final round.

“I’m just not quite as sharp as I’d like to be,” he said after the round. “Hopefully, tomorrow I’ll be a little bit sharper.”

In winning 12 majors, Woods has always been sharp — sharp with his tee shots, sharp with his short game, sharp with his putter. When he won the Open twice at St. Andrews, he overpowered the course, and when he won at Royal Liverpool a year ago, he underpowered it, using his long irons off the tee to keep the ball in the fairway and short of the deep bunkers.

Under the gloomy clouds of Carnoustie, he’s correct. He simply hasn’t been sharp. After a three-putt bogey at the second hole, birdies at the fourth and fifth took him to even par going to the 578-yard, par-5 sixth — always a birdie possibility for him. But from the fairway, Woods pushed his second shot high and far to the right, striking a woman in the gallery.

“It was terrible,” he said. “I saw the ball bounce out and figured it had to have hit somebody. Unfortunately, I went over there and the lady was bleeding all over the place. I felt really bad. You have kind of a pit in your stomach and, hopefully, you didn’t hurt someone too bad. She was smiling. I don’t know how she was smiling. I apologized the best I could.”

The guilty club was the same 2-iron that had hooked his opening tee shot on Friday into the burn.

“I stuck my 2-iron straight in the ground,” he said, “and that helped shoot it to the right into the gallery.”

Ricocheting off the woman, Woods’s ball found the rough. He pitched on but missed a 15-foot birdie putt. Another birdie at the seventh got him to one under for the tournament, but a bunkered tee shot led to another bogey on the 10th before a birdie 4 at the 15th lifted him to one under for 54 holes. That’s respectable, but Woods expects to be better than respectable.

And maybe he would be more than respectable if that 2-iron tee shot Friday had not veered out of bounds and into the burn.

“It was such a poor shot because the commitment wasn’t there,” he said. “If I hit a low one like I’ve been practicing on the range for the first tee, I can run the ball in the right bunker. So all of a sudden I throw this ball up in the air a little bit. I wasn’t really committed to throw the ball up in the air, and didn’t back up. It was basically a lack of commitment.”

With the weather forecast for today predicting “dull and cloudy with some patchy fog and drizzle at first, becoming dry and bright with some sunshine in the afternoon,” look for Woods to try to get off to fast start.

“You can probably make four or five birdies through the eighth hole if you’re playing well,” he said. “The back nine is a different story. There’s a lot of long clubs coming in. The only really good birdie chance you have is 14.”

Barring a dazzling comeback, that 2-iron tee shot into the burn will be Woods’s haunting memory of Carnoustie, just as his missed birdie putts on the back nine at the Masters kept him from overtaking Zach Johnson, and his inability to birdie any of the last three holes of the United States Open at Oakmont kept him from overtaking Ángel Cabrera.

He hasn’t been Tiger sharp at Carnoustie or in any of the majors this year, and he knows it.

“It’s horrible,” he said. “It’s a major, and the conditions have been a little bit frustrating. If you’re off, you’re going to be penalized. I’ve got to be playing a little better than I have been, that’s for sure. But at least I gave myself a chance going into tomorrow. Paul Lawrie came from 10 back in ’99.”

With a 67 that day, Lawrie leapfrogged only 12 golfers in catching Jean Van de Velde (whose meltdown on the 72nd hole wasted a three-stroke lead) and Justin Leonard, before winning a four-hole playoff. Tiger Woods has to leapfrog 14 golfers, and do it with a 2-iron that can’t be trusted.


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