Facebook Twitter

Grand thoughts: Woods closing in on elusive prize by pulling away

SHARE Grand thoughts: Woods closing in on elusive prize by pulling away

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — On a narrow strip of sun-baked turf between the 17th green and the road behind it, Tiger Woods was finally where everyone else needed him to be.

In trouble.

All day Friday in the British Open, Woods' shots found nothing but safe spots on the crusty Old Course as he methodically built a three-stroke lead. Then his approach on the toughest hole at St. Andrews rolled off the green into an area where a bogey seemed inevitable.

What came next was sheer magic.

Using the back slope of the dreaded Road Hole bunker as a backboard, Woods' chip went past the hole, up the mound and settled 8 feet from the cup. He saved par, polished off a 6-under 66 — and was halfway home to history.

"It's a good spot," Woods said, trying to contain a smile.

All that stands in the way of the career Grand Slam is two more trips over a course where he has yet to make worse than par.

Extending his major championship streak to 62 holes without a bogey, Woods played another near-flawless round and was at 11-under 133. His closest pursuer was David Toms.

Woods' 36-hole lead was six at Pebble Beach last month when he won the U.S. Open by 15 strokes. The way Woods has played this week, another runaway into the record books is not out of the question.

"I'm playing very similar to how I played at Pebble," he said.

If so, Woods would become only the fifth player — and the youngest at 24 — to win all four majors. The last was Jack Nicklaus, who completed his at age 26 in the 1966 British Open.

Toms, who has never contended in a major championship, had a bogey-free 67 and was at 136. Another stroke back were Loren Roberts (68), Steve Flesch (70) and Sergio Garcia (69), the last guy who challenged Woods in a major championship.

Ernie Els failed to ride the momentum from his first-round 66 and stayed right where he was with a scrambling 72, putting him at 138 along with Fred Couples (68), Phil Mickelson (66) and Tom Lehman (70).

All of them could use some help from St. Andrews. The Old Course has 112 bunkers — a mere rumor as far as Woods is concerned.

The closest he came was on the Road Hole.

"That chip shot wasn't exactly easy," Woods said. "The key is to choose a line so if you hit it too hard, you're not going to go in the bunker."

When his double-breaking putt fell for par, Woods clenched his fist, a rare display of emotion during a round when he often walked with his hands in his pockets.

He wasn't even aware that his last bogey in a major came on the 10th hole at Pebble Beach in the third round. He doesn't care about the streak, just the kind of golf that makes such a staggering number possible.

"What you try to do in any tournament is not make a mistake," Woods said. "Bogeys aren't good for your scorecard."

In Els' case, pars weren't good enough.

The Big Easy squandered a chance to take advantage of his good draw. Coming off an eight-birdie round of 66, he was among the early starters Friday and was poised to post a low score for Woods to match.

Only it didn't work out that way.

Els misread a 6-foot birdie putt on the first and lipped out another good birdie chance from 15 feet on No. 2. When he three-putted from 40 feet on the next hole, the momentum he had carried into the second round was gone.

"That's not the start you need," Els said. "I went right back into the pack."

He finally recovered with two birdies on the back and a rare par save with a sand shot that cleared the 9-foot face of the Road Hole bunker.

"Today was my bad round," he said. "I know I can play better over the weekend, and I'll do that."

The question is whether that will be enough.

Woods is 18-2 worldwide when leading after the third round. Friday was his 21st consecutive score at par or better. A bad round for Woods these days is about 69, especially in a British Open that seems as if it's being played in Southern California, not on the edge of the North Sea.

The scores have been so low that the cut was at even-par 144. That still was too low for defending champion Paul Lawrie (153) and John Daly (148), the last Open champion at St. Andrews, who missed the cut.

Sadly, so did Nicklaus.

He made one final pass over the Swilken Bridge, closing another chapter in a major championship.

Nicklaus gave an adoring Scottish gallery one last thrill by knocking it stiff on the 18th hole but missed the putt and failed to make it to the weekend for the first time in seven Opens at St. Andrews.

"That's a mixed emotion," Nicklaus said. "Walking over the Swilken Bridge and walking up the 18th hole for the last time is very nice. But not on Friday afternoon."

In many respects, it was just like the U.S. Open. Nicklaus reached the 18th in two at Pebble Beach, but three-putted for par. And Woods was getting ready to tee off about the time Nicklaus — his benchmark for greatness — was leaving.

"My record and my golf is basically done," said Nicklaus, who owns a record 18 majors. "I'm kind of rooting for somebody else to come along, and if it's Tiger, that's fine. Some of the golf I've seen from this young man is pretty phenomenal."