British Open 2013: Tiger Woods’ cautious play may have cost him his 15th major title

Andrew Redington

Tiger Woods has taken a cautious approach thus far, will it cost him a shot to win the British Open?

Tiger Woods may have ushered in the era of Boom Baby in golf, but he’s playing small ball at this week’s British Open. Now he has to do something he’s never done if he’s to end his five-year majorless drought: come from behind in the finale.

The strategy he outlined earlier in the week has kept the world No. 1 in the hunt at Muirfield, Woods’ conservative play on Saturday cost him a spot in Sunday’s final group and, perhaps, that elusive 15th major title. It took Woods 39 holes to hit his first drive of the week -- a blast that split the fifth fairway -- which is something he joked about on Friday.

“I've hit, I believe, about eight or 10,” Woods, with a straight face, told reporters. “On the range.”

Woods’ approach was sound enough to put him in a tie for second and one off the lead heading into the weekend. He believes the key to winning at Muirfield, which Woods complained played far less fast and firm in the third round than it did to start, is to keep the ball in fair territory by using irons and fairway metals off the tee.

“Just a grind, just being very patient out there,” Tiger told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi after carding two birdies and three bogeys on Saturday, which put him in the second-to-last pairing with reigning Masters champion Adam Scott and his bombastic caddie, Steve Williams, who -- of course -- is Tiger’s ex.

“Just continue plodding along and making a couple birdies here and there.”

Call it Tiger 3.0 or whatever, but the 37-year-old, 14-time major champion is no longer the fearless young gun who throttled courses and competitors with his big club. This week, an older, wiser, injury-prone Woods has been using more brains than brawn on a track in which just three players -- Woods, Westwood, and a third Sean Foley client, Hunter Mahan -- will enter the finale under par.

“He was very, very impressive the last two days,” Woods’ opening-rounds companion Graeme McDowell said Friday. “He will not be far away this weekend, the way he's playing. Iron play, the flight control that he has in his irons, he just hits the shot that you're supposed to hit at all times.

“He plays the golf course very conservatively, which I expected him to do because his iron play is -- I'm not sure there's a better iron player in the world,” McDowell added. “It's incredible how well he controls his ball flight. And he's putting exceptionally well. I lost count of how many eight, 10, 15-footers he's made for par over the last two days."

Pundits compared Woods’ 36-hole effort this week to his performance at Hoylake in 2006, the year he lifted the most recent of his three claret jugs. Back then, Woods hit 23 of 28 fairways in regulation, 28 of 36 greens, and putted 55 times in 36 holes, according to GoflChannel.com’s Rex Hoggard.

By the end of play on Friday of this week, Tiger’s stats were eerily similar: 21 of 28 fairways, 24 of 36 greens, and 57 putts, noted Hoggard, who also observed that Woods hit just one driver at Hoylake.

About the driver: After walking off the 16th green tied for the lead with Westwood at 2-under, Woods may regret not pulling the prototype Nike VR_S Covert Tour big dog on the par-5 17th on Saturday.

Sticking with his cautious scheme, Woods hit a tee shot that left him a ton to the green and he knocked his approach into a pot bunker, forcing him to splash out sideways with a wedge.

A bogey ensued and, after Westwood drilled another huge long putt for birdie, Woods got to the 18th tee and left the green two shots off the pace.

Until that time, however, Woods -- chasing his 15th major and Westwood, still looking for his first -- put on quite a show that played out like a ping-pong match as the lead going back and forth between the two frontrunners.

With overnight leader Miguel Angel Jimenez faltering, Woods grabbed an early advantage with a birdie on the par-4 second hole, but coughed it up after bogeying Nos. 4 and 7.

Westwood, meanwhile, jumped out to a three-shot advantage after seven holes, following an eagle on the par-5 fifth and a birdie on the seventh, only to have Woods bounce back for a share at 2-under after 11.

And so it went, until Westwood finished Tiger off and continued his domination of Woods in their head-to-head battles in the majors.

Woods enters the final round attempting to win his first major since the 2008 U.S. Open.

More golf from SB Nation:

Hunter Mahan in the final group, again

Open redemption for Adam Scott?

Will Tiger’s cautious approach cost him?

GIFs: Schwartel’s 450-yard drive | Laird’s rough issues

Final round leaderboard updates and coverage from Muirfield

A guide to Muirfield | A links course defined

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