LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Adam Scott thinks he can win the British Open, and Tiger Woods disagrees. That's the takeaway from the third round at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Scott controlled his ball and emotions beautifully on Saturday, making a lone bogey en route to a 68 that propelled him from second place into a four-stroke lead at 11 under. But even as Scott pushed deeper into red numbers, Woods, keeping tabs from the group in front, continued his conservative play, shooting even-par 70 to remain six under, five strokes behind. "Executing my game plan" has become the new "It's a process" for Woods, whose cautious approach was surely influenced by Sunday's forecast of heavy winds. His plodding play also comes with a strong undercurrent: he expects Scott to go backward in the gales, and Woods believes his current score of six under par is not far from the winning number.
Pressed to forecast what will happen during the most important round of Scott's life, Woods was typically evasive, though it sounds like he believes he controls his own fate. "It all depends on what happens and the conditions," Tiger said. "But in either case, I just have to go out and execute my game plan."
Woods did Scott a huge favor by playing his way out of the final pairing, saving the shy, soft-spoken, unfailingly polite Aussie from having to confront the domineering figure who has long lorded over his career. For four years at the start of this century, Scott and Woods shared a swing coach in Butch Harmon, and Scott now employs Steve Williams, the caddie who last year had an acrimonious parting with Woods after more than a decade of vacuuming up trophies.
On Saturday evening Scott was asked if he was "relieved" to have avoided Woods, and he said, "I don't think it would have bothered me at all." Maybe, maybe not, but instead of the awkwardness of a Tiger pairing he gets to enjoy the agreeable company of Graeme McDowell, who looks dangerous after putting his way to a 67 to share second place with Brandt Snedeker at seven under. Snedeker, the 36-hole leader, was utterly out of his depth for most of the third round but rallied with birdies on two of his final three holes to stay in the ballgame. Ernie Els and Zach Johnson share fifth place, six strokes back. All of those pursuers but Snedeker own a major championship, but Scott isn't fretting about that.
"If I play a solid round of golf tomorrow, it will be very hard for the others to beat me, and that's all I'm thinking about," he said in his post-round presser.
Scott has been tabbed for greatness for at least a decade, but 18 victories on the PGA Tour and European tour have not been quite good enough to stave off the feeling he has underachieved, an assessment Scott agrees with. Now he can join his boyhood idol and fellow Australian Greg Norman in the pantheon of British Open champions, thanks to stellar ball-bashing in the third round. Scott hit 10 fairways and averaged 334.5 yards on his measured drives, all the while displaying a lovely touch on the greens and converting both of his sand-save opportunities.
"He played fantastic from tee-to-green," said Snedeker, Scott's third round playing partner. "I was very impressed. He didn't show a whole lot of weaknesses today. So it was kind of a clinic out there for the majority of the round."
Scott may look like a movie star and enjoy the company of glamorous women — he has dated actress Kate Hudson and tennis babe Ana Ivanovic — but he's actually a hard-ass competitor. On the PGA and European tours, he has converted 16 of 18 54-hole leads into victories. Switching to a long putter two years ago has turned him into a consistent contender at the major championships, as he has claimed top-10 finishes in three of the last six. He went down to the wire at the 2011 Masters, playing airtight but not quite able to hold off Charles Schwartzel's historic finishing flourish of birdies.
"I'll have to draw from that experience," Scott says. "Just like I'll try to draw from other times I've had a lead going into the last round of the tournament….I'm really excited for what tomorrow holds. No matter what the result, it's going to be an incredible experience for me."
How it plays out will be largely determined by the elements. McDowell calls Lytham "a sleeping giant." It is the most heavily bunkered course in the Open rota, and this year it is also framed with punishing rough. Three consecutive days of benign weather have given the false impression that Lytham is a pushover, but Scott knows better.
So does Woods.