Another mixed tournament for Tiger Woods
The driver was new and his attitude decidedly more fan-friendly. There were familiar flashes of the old brilliance, too, especially during a third round when he flirted with the course record and played his way into contention.
But Tiger Woods is still stuck in the same groove. Still taking one step back for every two forward. Still rummaging through his golf bag for the piece of kryptonite somebody stashed deep inside.
To those still wondering whether his troubles are over, the answer still depends on whom you ask.
``Like I said yesterday, I needed to give myself a lot of looks and I did. Unfortunately, they were 20, 30 feet on every hole. That's fine if you're leading the tournament,'' he said. ``But I wasn't leading the tournament.''
Woods closed with an even-par 71 Sunday at wind-swept Cog Hill Golf Club to tie for seventh in the Western Open, a tournament he's won three times, including last year's record-setting, wire-to-wire victory.
You can look at Woods' week the way he did: as a fourth top-10 finish in his last five outings, marked by better drives and crisper iron play. Or you can look at it as just another of the maddeningly uneven performances the world's top-ranked player (for now) has been throwing at the competition for way too long. Over the four days, there was plenty of evidence to bolster either view.
Woods showed up Thursday wielding a graphite-shafted driver with a head big enough to use as a spare bedroom. But he hit it just like the old one -- wildly. On Friday, he gained command of the driver and promptly lost control of the irons. Stone-faced, he wrestled with the same affliction weekend golfers know only too well -- find one piece of the puzzle and lose another -- and cobbled together a worse-than-it-looked-on-the-scorecard 73, nearly missing the cut.
Moments later, he limped off to the range and pounded practice balls for an hour. While his work ethic has never been questioned, the effectiveness of his practice routine has, increasingly, since Woods' very public breakup with swing coach Butch Harmon.
He still handles questions about those sessions as though he was being asked about state secrets, refusing to say what he works on, or why. But whatever Woods did on the range the previous afternoon worked like magic Saturday. He birdied his first three holes and sprinkled in another six throughout the round en route to a 65, vaulting 44 spots up the leaderboard from 50th to sixth, within four shots of the lead.
He seemed so pleased to be playing well that after making par on his 11th hole of the day, Woods pulled the ball out of the cup, wrote a message on it and handed it to a father sitting alongside his son in a wheelchair. And he was still so juiced at the end that at his final hole -- a 600-yard, par 5 -- Woods smashed a 2-iron from 264 yards out over the green.
``I worked on a few things yesterday and felt a lot more comfortable with them,'' he said afterward, still grinning. ``I just went out there and trusted the swing I worked on at the range.''
There was a time not so long ago when the sight of Woods in the rearview mirror would have caused every golfer ahead of him to pull over to the side and into a ditch. But he's now gone winless in eight straight majors, and already twice this year, he's led tournaments after 36 holes and couldn't seal the deal.
So it's a safe bet that if the final-round co-leaders, Stephen Ames and Mark Hensby, lay awake Saturday night reviewing nightmare scenarios, at least some of them ended with somebody other than Woods zooming out of the pack to overtake them.
In Ames' case, all of them would have been a waste of sleep. His stiffest challenge came from Steve Lowery, the only member in Woods' group to mount a charge. Woods hammered his opening drive 353 yards, but wide right, and his 15-foot birdie try after a great recovery shot burned the left edge of the cup before slipping past. It was a sign of things to come.
The best birdie opportunity Woods created on the front nine -- a 6-footer at No. 5 -- came as Ames and Hensby stood nearby on the fourth tee. Both had already dropped a shot to slip to 8-under, and the gallery following them had dwindled to close relatives and a few stragglers. With a chance to close within two shots of the lead, Woods pushed his short birdie try harmlessly by on the right. Not long after, he bogeyed No. 8 and never sniffed the lead again.
On the bright side, Woods hit some exceptional ``stingers'' off the tees, those low, hard-running iron shots that are necessary to master the British Open courses. And he was just as good off the fairways with his wind-cheating approach shots, making it tempting to think that his majors drought could end soon at Troon, alongside the Irish Sea.
``I've got a whole arsenal I can work with out there,'' Woods said, ``and hopefully I'll have that two weeks from now.''
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