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Tiger drove the ball great, but his once-trusty putting stroke let him down

Photo: Stan Badz/PGA Tour

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — If you want to know about Tiger Woods's third round at the British Open, all you had to do was watch him play the 18th hole. Woods has been treating the 357-yard par 4 like a pitch-and-putt all week — he nearly aced it on Friday — and on Satuday he capped an excellent driving day with a bomb on 18 that rolled 40 feet past the hole.

After a day of spurts and spasms, striped tee shots and momentum-killing three-putts, Woods was 1-over par for his round, 3-under for the tournament as he stood over his long eagle putt under a postcard-blue sky. He struck it with his new Nike Method putter, which he put in his bag to get more speed on his putts, but the ball stopped about 8 feet short of the hole. Like they say to Kate Moss at KFC, "There's some chicken left on that bone." Woods's birdie putt stopped just before the hole, like so many of his birdie attempts Saturday. He tapped in for par, again, and finished with a 73, a long, long way from the top of the leaderboard.

As the media waited for Woods to turn in his scorecard and make some brief remarks, reporters tried to guess what he was going to say. The winner hit it exactly: "I hit it good today." Except that Woods wasn't giving the standard Tour player explanation for a disappointing round. (It comes in the PGA Tour orientation guide along with "I played better than I scored today" and "I just got to play my game"). He really did hit it great, smoking tee shots with his 3-wood and generally looking like vintage, pre-scandal, 14-majors-before-I'm 35 Tiger Woods, except when he had the putter in his hand.

"Ironically enough, now I'm driving it beautifully and I'm not making any putts," Woods said.

Not that he didn't make any putts. He had a nice 12-foot putt on 15 for birdie and made a long one to save par on No. 2. The short putt on 12 for birdie appeared to energize Woods. He made that quick reach to the hole to grab his ball, like he does when he's feeling it, and that king-of-the-world stride to the next tee. For a moment, it was like 2005 again. But it disappeared just as quickly with a three-putt the 13th green. After he missed his par putt, Woods actually punched the air in front of him, like he wanted to knock-out this Bizzaro Tiger who couldn't make those putts that once looked so unmissable. Earlier this week, caddie Stevie Williams called Woods's putting "substandard," and Woods appeared intent on proving him right.

"I couldn't build any momentum, wasn't making any putts today, and once I got it going just a little bit, I thought, I had back-to-back three putts at 13 and 14," Woods said. Asked if the new Nike putter was to blame — he won 13 of his 14 majors with his Scotty Cameron Newport putter, which was on its way to becoming as famous as Bobby Jones's Calamity Jane, Woods said, "No, I just need to have better speed."

While not pleased with the result, Woods did appear happy with his overall game afterward. He was playing with Darren Clarke, one of Woods's closer friends on Tour. A little bit older than Woods, Clarke is the kind of guy's guy Woods likes hanging out with. The galleries were extremely supportive of both players; Clarke is one of the European Tour's most popular players and Tiger is still Tiger. As he walked up the 18th fairway, it sounded like "Go Tiger!" screams were coming from every window along The Links street.

"I'm playing well," Woods said. "I certainly have had a lot more putts on the green than I ever had, and that's something that has basically kept me out of being in the final few groups."

He tried to put a good spin on his position, saying that anything can happen if he can get off to a quick start Sunday and build some momentum. But now 12 shots off the lead, Woods's best hope is probably to play well enough to post his third top-5 in a major this year. It would be another step in what he calls "the long process" of his return to golf. We all know he doesn't win majors from the clubhouse.

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