GULLANE, Scotland — Nobody expected it to take this long, certainly not him.
Through scandal, scorn, injury and athletic redemption, Tiger Woods has re-emerged as the No. 1 player in the game, with only a major championship keeping him from a full return to glory. That is now within his grasp at the game’s oldest tournament, a 15th major championship one day away in the land of golf’s birth.
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Woods has not been this close through 54 holes of a major since his life imploded nearly four years ago. An excellent opportunity awaits Sunday at Muirfield.
But he will have to chase down third-round leader Lee Westwood, whose own journey to major glory has been longer and far more painful. And he’ll have to hold off those around him, including Hunter Mahan, who along with Woods — and recently Westwood — employs Sean Foley as coach.
Mahan matched the best round of the day with a 3-under 68. He is two strokes behind Westwood and tied with Woods, who will play his final round with Masters champion Adam Scott, who employs Woods’ former caddie, Steve Williams.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Woods, whose 1-over 72 included a bogey at the par-5 17th, the same hole Westwood birdied to take a two-shot lead. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of it. I’ve been in this position before in the past five years, and I’ve been in the hunt. And I’m in it again. Hopefully tomorrow I can play well and win the tournament.”
Each of Woods’ 14 major titles has come when he’s held at least a share of the 54-hole lead, a trend he hopes to break Sunday. Of his 78 PGA Tour titles, 14 have come when he was two strokes or more behind the leader entering the final round.
Perhaps of more concern is his recent weekend play in the majors. Although his third-round 72 came on another treacherous day on the hard, fast-running links at Muirfield, it was also the 13th straight weekend round in a major that he’s failed to shoot in the 60s. But seven of the last 13 majors winners have come from multiple strokes behind, including last year’s Open winner, Ernie Els, who was six back.
In truth, given the severity of the test and the possibility of danger lurking, any number of players have a chance to hoist the Claret Jug. Some 17 players are within six strokes of the lead, including major winners Angel Cabrera, Zach Johnson and Phil Mickelson.
With a win on Sunday at the Open Championship, Lee Westwood would become the fourth player since 1970 to claim his first major championship after turning 40. Here’s the list he’ll be looking to join:
|2011 Open Champ.||Darren Clarke|
|1998 Masters||Mark O’Meara|
|1992 U.S. Open||Tom Kite|
|— Westwood turned 40 in April
— ESPN Stats & Information
This will be the sixth time Tiger Woods has entered the final round of a major either 1 or 2 shots back. Here’s how he’s fared on Sunday:
|2007 U.S. Open||2||72|
|2003 Open Champ.||2||71|
|1999 U.S. Open||2||70|
|— Never won a major while trailing
— ESPN Stats & Information
Westwood forged ahead with a 1-under 70 that was buoyed by a crucial 12-foot bogey putt at the 16th followed by the birdie on No. 17. The No. 1 player in the world for a time, the 40-year-old Westwood has 22 European Tour victories. He moved to Florida earlier this year in hopes of giving himself better preparation for the majors.
“You try to picture yourself winning the Open Championship tonight, but forget about it tomorrow and go and tee off down the first and focus on it in the middle of the fairways with the first tee shot and then go from there,” he said. “The way this golf course is set up, it is a very strategic golf course. You have to plot your way around it. Most major championships are like that. They grind you into the ground. Mentally and physically, it’s draining, and you just have to focus on the job at hand and pile the pars up and try to make birdies whenever you can.”
Mahan made five of them Saturday en route to a 68 that ultimately put him in the final group with Westwood. Last month at the U.S. Open at Merion, he was also in the final group along with Mickelson, but he shot 75 to finish in a tie for fourth.
“I’m just trying to play golf,” Mahan said. “I’m not trying to add to anything or make it more than it is, just enjoying kind of the opportunity of playing in a major, playing in a British. I enjoyed it playing in the U.S. Open. I enjoyed playing with Phil. I didn’t think that was a distraction or a hindrance or anything. You just kind of accept things and appreciate them.”
Scott was the hard-luck loser at the Open a year ago, bogeying the final four holes at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s to lose by a stroke to Els. He bounced back to win his first major in a playoff over Cabrera at the Masters, and now is in position to become the first player since Woods in 2005 to win a green jacket and a Claret Jug during the same year.
“It’s a good feeling to sit here in this position, absolutely,” Scott said after a 70. “It’s completely different. I think I go out there not carrying the weight of the lead or not having won a major. So it’s a different feeling. Hopefully, I can play enough quality shots to give myself chances to be in the hunt right at the end.
“But it’s a long way off. The course, it can turn around on you in a heartbeat out there, if you’re not careful. I’ll be treading cautiously tomorrow.”
That appears to have been Woods’ game plan from the start. He’s hit just one driver in the tournament and has done his best to stay out of trouble. He hit 12 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens on Saturday and probably should have gotten more out of the round for as well as he struck the ball. He needed 33 putts, but the crucial error came at the 17th, where he hit his second shot into a bunker and had to play it out sideways, leading to the bogey.
“I’m pleased where I’m at; I’m only two back,” Woods said. “There’s only one guy ahead of me, and we’ll see what they do.
“I’ve got 14 of these things and I know what it takes to win it. He (Westwood) has won tournaments all over the world; he knows how to win golf tournaments. He’s two shots ahead, and we’re going to go out there and both compete and play.
“It’s not just two of us. There’s a bunch of guys who have a chance to win this tournament. And all of us need to really play well to win it.”