LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Tiger Woods knew exactly what kind of hell Royal Lytham's 206 bunkers could unleash. He said as much earlier in the week, before play had begun in earnest at the 141st Open Championship. "At any links course, you've got to stay out of the bunkers, because you can't get to the green," Woods said. "That's just a fact. If you hit the ball in there, it's going to go up against the face, because it goes in there with some steam, and you're pitching it out sideways, sometimes backwards."
On the par-4 sixth hole on Sunday, Woods faced that predicament precisely. After depositing his 5-iron approach into one of the two pot bunkers that guard the left side of the green, his ball snuggled up against the stacked layers of sod that comprise the bunker's face, leaving him little hope of advancing the ball toward the green.
Woods had three options, none of them especially appealing: (1) Hack something out sideways and hope his ball would slingshot around the bunker face to safety; (2) Declare an unplayable lie and take a one-stroke penalty. Under Rule 28, that would have permitted him to drop a ball within two club-lengths of where his original ball lay, no nearer the hole, while remaining within the confines of the bunker; or (3) Dig in, say a prayer, and blast his ball off the bunker face toward the green.
Woods chose Door No. 3, smashing a lob wedge into the damp, heavy sand, and with it, his hopes of winning a fourth claret jug. The ball bounded off the sod and back toward Woods, just barely avoiding his left shirtsleeve, and nestled into the far left side of the bunker.
The next shot was even more precarious. Sitting outside the bunker — his balky left leg tucked beneath him, his right leg extended — Woods extended his wedge back into the hazard and took another swipe. Again the ball caught the bunker face, but this time popped up and out and onto the green, stopping 50 feet below the hole. That led to a three-putt triple bogey, which put him, at that point, six strokes behind Adam Scott. Game, set … yo, Steiny, fire up the jet.
The cruel irony was that Woods had spent his week assiduously trying to avoid Lytham's bunkers. Every player had, of course, but Woods seemed to take the strategy to the extreme. He repeatedly spoke about his "game plan" — a steady diet of cautiously placed irons. Woods's driver saw about as much action as a nun at a church mixer. Adding to Woods's misfortune was that his approach at No. 6 wasn't far off — "one yard," he said after a round of 73 that left him tied for third, four strokes back of the winner, Ernie Els.
So, Tiger, about that first bunker shot …
"The problem is, if I played left I wasn't assured I could get it to the gallery and get it out of that slope because if it rolls back in the bunker and I'm on the downslope then I've got no backswing," Woods said. "So I had to be able to blast it into the gallery, and I didn't think I could get it into the gallery because of the sand, how it piled up on the right side of the ball.
"So the game plan" — there's that term again — "was to fire it into the bank, have it ricochet to the right and then have an angle to come back at it. Unfortunately it ricocheted to the left and almost hit me."
Woods bounced back with a birdie on the next hole, but a bogey at 9 paired with three more at 13, 14, and 15 prevented him from putting much of a scare into Scott. "You know, I was right there," Woods said of his position on the leaderboard before his adventures at the sixth. He said his plan was to shoot even par on the front, then try to make a couple of birdies on the back side to climb to eight or nine under par. "And I thought that was going to be the number to win the golf tournament. I thought eight was a playoff, nine was to win outright." In the end, those numbers proved to be seven and eight.
Fourteen is a number golf fans have associated with Tiger Woods since he won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, his 14th major title. But that number now takes on new significance: the PGA Championship at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island in two weeks will represent Woods's 14th major appearance since his last major victory. He is unflustered by the drought. Or at least he says that he is.
"It's part of golf," he said Sunday evening. "We all go through these phases. Some people it lasts entire careers. Others are a little bit shorter. Even the greatest players to ever play have all gone through little stretches like this. When your playing careers last 40 and 50 years, you're going to have stretches like this."
Woods says the "pop" is back in his swing and that he's finally feeling healthy again — it should be noted that after striking his "seated" bunker shot at No. 6, he got up gingerly — but of late his consistency and precision have been an issue, especially late in tournaments. After two rounds of magnificent ball-striking at the Olympic Club last month, he lost his touch, shooting 75-73 on the weekend and never threatening to win. A similar, troubling trend unfolded at Lytham, where in the first two rounds he delivered a steady regimen of crisp iron shots, hitting 26 of 28 fairways and 80 percent of the greens in regulation. On Saturday, those stats dipped, and on Sunday, they plummeted. In the fourth round, Woods hit nine fairways and just seven greens.
"I'm hitting the ball distances I know I can," Woods said. "Unfortunately, when I get out here with a little bit of adrenalin, it goes a little bit further. It's a combination of having my strength and my speed back, at the same time playing tournament golf."
And then what?
Well, as Woods said on Saturday when asked about his chances on Sunday, "Whatever happens, happens. I've just got to go out there and execute my game plan."