By Jeff Babineau
Lytham St. Annes, England
The start of the 130th British Open was only two days away, and Peter Dawson, secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, placed an urgent inquiry to Tiger Woods’ camp, which had gathered in force at Royal Lytham.
Dawson’s question was short and to the point: “Where’s the Claret Jug?”
OK, so maybe Woods, the tournament’s defending champion, thought he was going to hang onto the Open’s shiny hardware for, say, at least another year or two. But in the end, when the storied jug headed back across the Atlantic Ocean July 23, it was in the hands of Woods’ good friend, David Duval.
By the time Woods sorted out a loose, uncooperative swing at Royal Lytham, the tournament – not to mention a couple of dozen players – had pretty much passed him. He enjoyed the demanding test Lytham presented; he just didn’t pass it with his usual flying colors, settling into a pedestrian tie for 25th at 1-under 283. His score was two shots higher than the 281 he shot at Lytham as an amateur in 1996.
“You are not going to play well every week,” said Woods, who finished outside the top 10 for his fourth consecutive tournament – a stretch he has not endured since late 1997, back when he was overhauling his swing. “This week I grinded it the best I could. I got a lot out of my scores this weekend. Thank goodness I was chipping and putting very good. If I wasn’t able to do that, you never know.”
Don’t let the middle-of-the-pack finish fool you, however. Woods started the final day only five shots back, and teeing off nearly 3 hours before the leaders, he was the leading candidate to post a low number the others would have to chase, just as he did three years ago at Royal Birkdale, when he finished one shot out of a playoff. At least that was the plan.
Woods three-putted the first for bogey but rebounded with consecutive birdies at Nos. 4, 5 and 6. At the 557-yard par-5 seventh, where he had stumbled with a double bogey from the hay a day earlier, he had 9-iron in his hands for his second shot and seemed poised to turn up the volume. But he pulled his ball left and failed to get up-and-down for birdie, his 30-foot putt cruelly lipping out.
“That’s the hole that killed him this week,” sighed Butch Harmon, Woods’ coach, watching a replay on a television set near the practice tee. Actually, the par-5 11th did him no favors, either. Woods played the 7-11 combo in even par; Duval played those same holes 7 under.
One last par at the 11th for Woods, where he took three putts from the fringe, ended any ideas of a challenge. A triple-bogey 6 at the 12th slammed the door for good.
Even before Sunday’s troubles, a pivotal five-hole stretch on the back nine Saturday had contributed to his demise. He was 3 under for the tournament, six behind the streaking Alex Cejka, and seemed determined to force something to happen. He had a good look at birdie at the 14th but instead three-putted for bogey.
At the 359-yard par-4 16th, the only breather on the way to the house, he gambled with driver, knocked his tee shot beneath the right grandstand, and had no chance at birdie. Two holes later at 18, the driver came out again, and he sailed a tee shot into a thicket of trees. Unplayable lie. Bogey. On a day when players were lighting up the board in red numbers, Woods signed for 2-over 73. When Cejka and the other leaders fell back late in the day, Woods was farther away than he should have been.
“When I get bad, I slow down (with my swing),” said his friend and third-round playing partner, Mark O’Meara. “When he gets bad, he speeds up. Hey, I’m no critic. I wish I had a tenth of the talent that he has. . . . But that’s why you really have to appreciate the way he plays when he’s on.”
For three days, Woods just wasn’t sharp with his long game, and it’s a tribute to his tenacity and doggedness that he kept the leaders within sight. As he changed his shoes in Lytham’s venerable locker room early Saturday evening, he was informed he was only five back. “Great,” he said. He asked if the wind was expected to blow hard on Sunday. It was. “Perfect,” Woods replied.
Even with so many names between him and the leaders, the stage seemed set. The opportunity was there for the legend to grow. It just never happened.
Blame it on technical difficulties.