Once again, the public confidence of Tiger Woods has been undermined by basic performance. This is becoming an ominous habit.
On making the cut at the Players Championship, at even par and eight adrift of the co-leaders, Woods insisted he retained a chance of winning the event for a third time. This represented typically bullish sentiment and one with a foundation in history, regardless of the 39-year-old’s recent toils.
By Saturday lunchtime, however, Woods declined the opportunity to offer any post-round comment at all. A third round of 75, triggered by a woeful front nine of 40, means Woods will once again have completed tournament duties before the key protagonists take to the course on day four. He is yet to break 70 here.
Two holes played a key part in his struggle. Woods double-bogeyed the two par fives on the front nine, the 2nd –where it took him five to reach the green – and 9th. In more than 1,100 rounds on the PGA Tour as a professional, he had never previously made multiple double bogeys on par fives.
Making his way to the 10th tee, his anger was perfectly apparent. By his own admission, Woods is tinkering with swing options. Throughout the third round his fluidity appeared totally lost. To his credit, Woods did not fold on the inward half. A birdie on 11 sat alongside eight pars. But the damage was done. Even Woods’s declining to offer comment was telling. Since his return from self-imposed exile at the Masters, he has seemed to be on something of a public-relations drive.
Making three over par in the most benign conditions of the week seemed sufficient for Woods to lose his voice. One damning statistic appeared thereafter: in the past two seasons on the PGA Tour, Woods has made as many rounds of 75 or more – eight – as he has in the 60s.
Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els, former Open champions, matched Woods’s third-round score. And yet, even halfway through the day, 35 players were within three of the lead, a nod to the level of birdie opportunities on offer.
The performance of Jhonattan Vegas proved considerably better than those of that trio. The Venezuelan came back in 32 for a round of 66, suddenly firing himself into contention. This proved as much of a surprise to Vegas as to any onlooker. He is six under through 54 holes having, like Woods, made the cut right on the button.
“It was a crazy day,” Vegas said. “Thinking about 27 holes ago, I was five over par going to the back nine yesterday, and to look at myself being tied for third right now, which is still super early, but it’s great. I’m super happy. I knew that the past four years, the winning score has been around 13 under, so I knew that I had to go out and shoot somewhere six or seven under to try to give myself a chance tomorrow. I just went at it and luckily it happened.”
Henrik Stenson has cause to relish his Players prominence, weeks after he was forced to battle through illness at the Masters. The Swede was bed-bound with flu in the immediate buildup to the event and considered pulling out after 18 holes but clung on to finish in a highly impressive share of 19th. Still, inability to compete seriously as Jordan Spieth secured his runaway victory will naturally intensify Stenson’s hunger for the remainder of this season.
“Physically, I’m in pretty good shape,” Stenson said. “I’m a couple of pounds lighter, which is never a bad thing if it’s fat. I probably lost a little bit of muscle, as well. We’re back in the gym trying to build that up, so I feel pretty good.
“In terms of practice I’m a little bit shy on that front. I’m trying to make up some ground on that but again, you can’t do it all at once, so I’m just trying to slowly build again, and looking at the long-term things, and hopefully I’ll be in good shape coming into the US Open.”
Stenson took a recent visit to Chambers Bay, the newly constructed US Open venue in Seattle, where he opted to walk rather than play the course. “It’s always good to have seen a course before you get there,” he said, “and especially a major championship course and a big site like that one because you know what’s expected of you when you’re coming there and what kind of shots you need to practise going in.
The conditions in early June might not be the same as we had here in the beginning of May, end of April. It’s probably not a bad thing not having played it.”
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