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Tiger's freefall gives his critics a rare opportunity
GULLANE, Scotland -- Bareheaded against a driving rain, barely able to see the line of his putt, Tiger Woods blinked.
He was not the only one having trouble figuring out what he was looking at. But what made this day different from all the others is that for once, Woods never found the answer.
Five weeks ago, on the other side of the Atlantic, he played nearly flawless golf in a downpour during the second round of the U.S. Open. The gloomy conditions and his brilliant ball-striking so demoralized the rest of the field that winning his second national championship two days later turned out to be little more than a mop-up operation.
Saturday, on this side of the pond, the same guy let the British Open slip from his grasp in the cold and wet and wind of a Scottish summer day. With it went his chance for a Grand Slam.
"Thank God I was grinding," Woods said after shooting an 81, his highest score as a professional. "It could have been a really high number."
A really high number is what bookies across the United Kingdom will have to pay out if Soren Hansen, Des Smyth, or any other relative unknowns nesting near the top of the leaderboard don't look down and faint -- assuming the two or three punters who bought tickets haven't already returned home.
A really high number is how many times third-round leader Ernie Els or better-known pursuers Justin Leonard, Sergio Garcia and David Duval will be asked whether winning this tournament means that Woods finally has a worthy rival.
A half-dozen years after Woods turned professional, the Tiger-haters finally had their day, and the videotape they've been pining for. They should enjoy it while they can. The collapse couldn't have been much more complete.
In the end, it didn't matter whether the tough conditions or problems with his swings caused Woods to unravel. He hit his first tee shot into the right rough, and his last putt tracked roughly 320 degrees around the cup before spinning out. In between, he hit one shot from greenside rough that barely flew five feet, missed a putt of half that distance and left a sand shot in a bunker.
One measure of how far the mighty had fallen was the lack of applause that greeted Woods when he staggered onto the 18th green, in part because the grandstands on either side were nearly empty.
"Today wasn't a day for Tiger-watching," said Els, who begins the final round with a 2-shot lead over Hansen and 11 clear of Woods.
All in all, the day was better suited for watching the Weather Channel than golf.
After handling Muirfield's classic links with some skill -- the field averaged 73 and 72 in the first two rounds under benign conditions -- the course struck back Saturday with a fury.
The last 10 groups bore the brunt of the bad weather. The average score ballooned to 75. Ten golfers shot 80-something.
"We kept dropping shots and they wouldn't take us off the leaderboard," Els said, referring to himself and playing partner Shigeki Maruyama. "I knew at that stage that nobody was having fun."
And Woods least of all.
After hitting 11 and 10 fairways the first two days, he hit only 7. After hitting 14 and 15 greens, he hit only 7. After averaging almost 290 yards off the tee, he plummeted to 219.
"I was frustrated that I wasn't able to hit the ball today. And on top of that," Woods added, "I didn't make any putts again."
By the time Woods finally did make a putt -- a 6-footer for birdie at 17 -- he was already nine over on the day.
What made his performance so befuddling was the conservative golf that preceded it.
In the first two rounds, Woods hit most of his approach shots into the greens to 20 feet and putted cautiously. He played like a man preparing for the wind and rains in this far corner of Scotland, challenging the weather to test his game.
It didn't work out the way he planned. The howling winds and horizontal rain so confounded Woods that for the first time in memory, he played without a hat, but it changed nothing. The rain stung his eyes on every shot and putt, so much so that he was surprised at the fifth hole to look down and not find melting snow.
"I don't know if there was any sleet," Woods said, "but it sure hurt."
And that was hardly the worst of it.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press.