With Jack Nicklaus already winging home to Florida after a touching Friday finish to his major championship career, Tiger Woods had the British Open stage virtually all to himself Saturday.
His scrambling soliloquy in the third round spoke volumes about the state of his game and his steely mind-set as he rescued what easily could have been a score in the mid- to high-70s and turned it into a 1-under 71.
Players going off early Saturday couldn't have ordered up a better scoring day if they'd tried, with only a whiff of a breeze blowing in from the nearby North Sea. But not long after Woods and playing partner Colin Montgomerie teed off in the final group shortly after 3 p.m., gusts were reaching 25 mph and the wind was constantly in their faces through most of the outward front nine.
Woods suddenly had problems finding the fairways after hitting 27 of 32 the first two days. Two of his wayward front-nine tee shots left him with unplayable lies buried in prickly gorse bushes. After taking penalty drops at both holes, he salvaged a bogey out of the bush at the 412-yard No. 6 and saved par from another at the 352-yard No. 9. He birdied the final hole to get to 12-under 204, opening a two-shot lead over Jose Maria Olazabal in pursuit of his 10th major championship.
"Today was tough," Woods said. "The wind was starting to pick up in the middle of the round. The greens got so hard and the fairways had gotten harder. Shots on the fairways were sometimes running 80 yards, and it's really hard to judge how much it's going to roll and it became very, very difficult."
With the cheers of his countrymen putting an extra bounce in his step, Montgomerie acquitted himself brilliantly while playing for the first time with Woods in the final pairing of a major event. He beat Woods by a shot, his splendid 70 punctuated by a dramatic 35-foot birdie putt at the 357-yard finishing hole that left him in a tie for third place with two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (66) at 9-under 207.
Woods will play the final 18 holes with a friend, two-time Masters champion Olazabal, who converted a 60-foot eagle putt from the fairway fronting the 348-yard 12th hole and made one final birdie at the last hole to post a 68 and a 10-under total of 206.
"I thought if I shot under par for the day, the way the day was turning, I more than likely would have a piece of the lead," Woods said. "No one made a bunch of birdies coming home, so to have the lead all day and actually end up with it is pretty sweet. . . . Do I think I can win? I guess if I don't, I won't show up tomorrow on the first tee."
Woods has won all nine of his major championships -- including the 2000 British Open on this course -- when he held the lead going into the final run. Though his streak of six straight rounds in the 60s at St. Andrews ended, he can be comforted by the fact that he has won 31 of the 34 times he's held or been tied for the lead after 54 holes.
Earlier in the week, Montgomerie had described as "ominous" Woods's presence at the top of the leader board after the first round. On Saturday, he was cautiously optimistic about his own chances, but bluntly realistic.
"I know, as well as everyone knows in this field, that Tiger probably had his hiccup today," he said. "And he still got around under par because the later starters as well had the most difficult of the conditions. I've gained one of the four shots I need [with that last birdie putt]. I've got to find another three tomorrow. Rest assured, I will not leave any putt short of the hole."
Goosen, hoping to make amends for his own shocking collapse in the final round of the U.S. Open last month at Pinehurst, will have a chance to win his third major after matching the tournament's best round with a 6-under 66. Playing much earlier in the day when breezes were minimal, he also birdied the final hole with a four-footer. Goosen had a three-shot lead after 54 holes at the Open, only to shoot 81 and tie for 11th.
"I don't think there's anything to be learned from the Open," Goosen said. "It was just one of those days. Everything I did was wrong. If I hit a good shot, it was the wrong club. I misread the greens a lot. It was just a big disappointment. I'd just like to give myself a chance and one day it works out and you win again. You just keep grinding away and hope it happens for you."
Olazabal had failed to qualify for the tournament at Sunningdale in England last month, but played well enough to be the first alternate. When his friend and childhood hero, Seve Ballesteros, decided not to play because of a chronically bad back, Olazabal got his spot in the field, and clearly has made the most of the opportunity.
"I've always said I have no problem playing with Tiger," said Olazabal, who played the first two rounds with Woods. "It might be harder if you're playing in the States in the sense that the crowds are louder. Once Tiger has played the hole, everybody moves, but that's not the case over here. That's why I think the crowds at the [British] Open are the best."
The top of the board is loaded with other quality players. Brad Faxon (70), who qualified last weekend at nearby Lundin Links, was tied for fifth place at 8-under 208 with Spain's Sergio Garcia (69), who eagled the ninth hole. And U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell (68) was tied for seventh with Vijay Singh (71) at 7-under 209.
Woods's vast experience in clinching major championships will certainly serve him well on Sunday. And if the forecast stays the same -- temperatures in the mid-70s and moderate wind -- he'll be difficult to catch. "If there's a course built for him, it's this one," Montgomerie said after the first round. Early Saturday evening, he and everyone else close to the lead knew precisely what they had to do.
"I probably need to score 66 to beat Tiger," Montgomerie said. "If I can score 66 around here, I have a chance. He's still leading by two, and anything can happen. It's a seven-mile walk and he's obviously the favorite. He copes with the pressure and the situation around him, being Tiger Woods, incredibly well. And if he does win this again, it's an amazing effort."