GULLANE, Scotland — Tiger Woods couldn’t get anything close all day except for the one place that mattered at the British Open.
His name high on the leaderboard.
Woods didn’t charge into contention Friday at Muirfield as much as he kept from falling back like so many others. Not only did he go 12 holes without a birdie, he only had two reasonable chances before finally cashing in with a 15-foot putt on the last hole for an even-par 71.
It looked even better as the day went on, and more players ahead of him kept dropping shots on the some of the fastest greens at the British Open. When the second round ended, Woods was at 2-under 140, only one shot behind 49-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez. Woods was tied with Lee Westwood (68) and Henrik Stenson (70). He plays in the penultimate group Saturday with Westwood.
“Just continue plodding along,” Woods said. “Just continue being patient, putting the ball in the right spots. We’re not going to get a lot of opportunities out there, but when I have, I’ve been able to capitalize. And hopefully, I can continue doing that.”
It was enough to impress Graeme McDowell, who found himself caught up in watching golf’s No. 1 player work his way through the wind.
“There will be no surprise to me if he’s picking up the claret jug on Sunday night,” said McDowell, who also had a 71 and was 4-over 146. “But I’m not writing off the rest of the field. There’s quality players there in this field, and I’m certainly not writing myself off. But if he continues to play the way he’s playing, he’s going to be tough to beat.”
For three hours in the middle of his round, Woods looked like he was trying to hang on.
Getting the speed of the green was tough enough after officials hand-watered the greens overnight, making them slower than what Woods faced Thursday afternoon. The real problem was judging the speed of the fairways. Six times he came up short of the greens as he tried to bounce his shots off the firm turf and onto the putting surface. On consecutive holes, Woods finally saw the ball run onto the green and over the back.
From just short of the 10th green, he knocked his putt some 15 feet past the hole and made that coming back for par. He was short enough on the 11th that he chipped over a hump about 10 feet by the hole, and missed that putt to make bogey. On the 14th and 15th holes, his shots landed 30 yards short of the green and both times ran off the back edge. He hit a flop shot from mangled grass to 3 feet on the 14th, and he chipped to 5 feet on the 15th. Both times, he saved par.
It was hard work, and Woods looked the part.
“I was having a hard time to get the ball to chase, and then on top of that, trying to hit the putts hard enough going up the hills,” Woods said. “But then toward the middle part of my round, I lost the pace and was blowing it past the hole. But finally got it fixed at the end.”
The key for Woods comes on Saturday. He had a share of the 36-hole lead last year at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship and fell too far back after the third round to seriously contend. And he has never won a major when he wasn’t atop the leaderboard going into the last round.
“I’m not going to win every major I play in,” Woods said. “But certainly I can try and put myself there. If I give myself enough opportunities, I’ll get my share. And I think I have so far in my career.”
McDowell wasn’t sure what impressed him more – the clutch putting or control Woods had of the flight of his irons. Friday’s round was played in an opposite wind out of the east, and it led to some significant adjustments.
Hit 3-wood off the tee and a 6-iron onto the green at the 448-yard 15th on Thursday. The next day, it was a 5-iron off the tee and sand wedge just over the green. The par-5 17th hole was downwind in the opening round, so Woods hit 4-iron off the tee and 4-iron onto the green. On Friday, he hit 3-wood off the tee and for his approach, leaving that some 50 yards short of the green.
As for the driver? That remains a rumor.
McDowell said he had to check twice with Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie, “that the driver head cover actually had a driver underneath it.”
“Because it actually hasn’t seen the light of day – not even close,” McDowell said. “He’s playing the golf course conservatively, using his iron play to devastating effect. Very impressive. I said to him on the 18th green, `That was a clinic the last two days. That was very impressive.’ Combo that with some great putting, he’s going to be dangerous.”
Woods was asked how many drivers he has hit this week.
“I’ve hit, I believe, about eight or 10,” he said. And then when he was asked where, Woods smiled and said, “On the range.”
McDowell has seen plenty of Woods over the last few years. He played with Woods in the final group at Bay Hill last year, which Woods won by five shots. He played with him in the final round at Doral this year and made a strong run until Woods won going away.
“He was very, very impressive the last two days,” McDowell said. “He will not be far away this weekend the way he’s playing. Iron play, the flight control that he has in his irons … he just hits the shot that you’re supposed to hit at all times.”