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Tiger makes a not-so-grand exit from British Open contention
GULLANE, Scotland -- Tiger Woods clenched his teeth on the short walk to the fifth tee, feeling the sharp sting of a cold rain that blew sideways into his face.
The real pain came later.
While Ernie Els survived a brutal day at the British Open to build a two-stroke lead, Woods posted his worst score as a professional -- an 81! -- that brought a shocking end to his quest to win the Grand Slam.
Instead of another coronation, Woods was reduced to making a rare concession that his chances to win all four majors this year had been swept out to the Firth of Forth.
"Yeah, probably," Woods said. "There are too many guys between me and the lead. All I can do tomorrow is shoot a low number and see what happens. It was frustrating to put myself this far behind."
After a miserable day only the Scots could love, Els emerged with a 1-over 72 that gave him the 54-hole lead and his best chance in a major since his second U.S. Open title five years ago.
Even better, Woods was nowhere to be found, 11 strokes and 66 players behind him.
The Big Easy has never had it so easy.
"It's more comforting than when he's around," said Els, who was at 208 and held a two-stroke advantage over Soren Hansen of Denmark. "But I can't take it easy. I have to play as hard as I can. There's a lot of work left."
There were plenty of others still in contention.
Sergio Garcia endured nine holes of wind and rain for a 72 and was among seven players at 211. Former British Open champion Justin Leonard and 21-year-old Justin Rose finished their rounds of 68 before the 30 mph gusts and bone-chilling cold arrived.
Thanks to the luck of the draw, they went from a tie for 50th into a tie for third, the silver claret jug suddenly a possibility.
"It's the most amazing thing I've seen for a very long time at this championship," Els said. "I've seen it calm in the mornings, blow in the afternoon. But I've never seen it like this."
Els had the best score among the final 10 groups that caught the brunt of the miserable weather. Hansen was right behind with a 73.
Woods was among 10 players who failed to break 80 as the Muirfield links struck back with a vengeance.
Woods went through nearly 12 new gloves trying to keep his hands dry. Shigeki Maruyama ducked behind a wooden backstop on No. 8 to stay out of the cold, raw wind. Visors and baseball caps gave way to stocking hats.
The wind was so vicious that some players had to hit drivers on the 213-yard fourth hole and still couldn't make it all the way to the green. Colin Montgomerie, who had a personal-best 64 in the British Open on Friday, was 20 strokes worse in the third round, the biggest turnaround in the 142-year history of the tournament.
"These were some of the toughest conditions I've ever seen in an Open championship," Els said. "On the front nine, there almost was not a par to be made out there."
The wind finally eased when Els got to the 12th hole, and he took advantage. He surged into the lead by hitting a 5-iron within 5 feet for birdie on No. 16 and reaching the par-5 17th hole in two shots to set up a two-putt birdie.
That's where Woods made his only birdie of the day. When his 4-foot putt disappeared, he raised both arms in mock celebration and took a bow.
"It just wasn't meant to be today," Woods said.
Starting the third round only two strokes out of the lead, Woods was poised to climb into contention for the third leg of the Grand Slam. Simply the sight of his name on the leaderboard is usually enough to get everyone's attention.
On a day like this, that was the least of anyone's worries.
"This was the first time I really didn't think about Tiger," Els said. "I was just trying to survive. Today wasn't a day for Tiger watching."
Besides, Woods never made it to the board.
He hit only one fairway on the front nine and made his first double bogey in a major championship since the first round of the PGA Championship last year. When he missed a 2 1/2-foot putt on No. 14, he already was 11 over for the day.
"Thank God I was grinding," he said. "It could have really been a high number."
Another testament to the miserable weather: No one was terribly shocked by seeing an 81 next to his name.
"You're seeing the best player in the world, possibly the best player to play the game, have a very difficult day," Scott McCarron said. "It can make anybody look silly."
Until Saturday, Woods' worst round had been a 79 when he was a 20-year-old rookie playing in the 1996 Australian Open.
This was far most costly.
The first player in 30 years to win the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year, Woods lost any hope of winning all four professional majors in the same season -- and quieting critics who don't recognize as a real Grand Slam his four in a row over the 2000-01 seasons.
Els won't have to worry about Woods, but the British Open remains just that: open.
Hansen, whose first career victory came last month in the Irish Open, holed crucial par putts to stay in contention and will play in the final group at a major for the first time.
The real threat could come from the collection of players behind him, especially Garcia, who is making a habit of contending in the majors.
"I feel like I shot at least 5- or 6-under par," Garcia said. "I tried hard and I hung in there, and I'm happy with the result."
Also at 211 was Thomas Bjorn, McCarron, Maruyama and Des Smyth, the 49-year-old Irishman trying to become the oldest player to win a major.
Even defending champion David Duval, who left Muirfield thinking he would need a 62 to have a chance, was only five shots behind.
"It was a test beyond belief," Bjorn said. "This was a sleeping giant of a course, and it certainly showed today."
Muirfield slew the biggest giant of them all -- Tiger Woods.