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Tiger's the (Iron) Man

Woods keeps his driver in the bag and blisters Royal Liverpool with a 65 that includes a spectacular eagle. He leads Els by one shot.

July 22, 2006|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

HOYLAKE, England — The 135th British Open has reiterated that if you like some skyrockets with your golf, you probably fancy Tiger Woods, while if you like your golf steady and thoughtful and poised, you probably fancy ...

Tiger Woods.

Those two strands of excellence haven't always dovetailed for Woods in recent years, but as he toted to the weekend a one-shot lead over Ernie Els and a 6-0 record when leading major tournaments at Saturday dawns, the two reunited.

An eagle a day supplied the skyrockets, not to mention fodder for present and future highlight reels. To his 20-foot eagle putt at dusk Thursday, add a preposterous hole-out from the 14th fairway at high noon Friday, on a four-iron that soared 194 yards to the front of the green, smacked down and bounded into the cup unseen by its creator.

"I didn't see the top of the flag," said Woods, who added a seven-under-par 65 to his opening 67 for a 12-under 132 total. "I didn't see anything. I was too far back."

A TV man explained the gallery's roar, and only a TV set could convey the size of Woods' grin as he marched to the green.

Otherwise, though, a horde of nimble iron shots supplied the steadiness and the thoughtfulness and the poise, things that affix themselves less to the long memories of casual fans but might prove more compelling to golf connoisseurs.

Using clubs he seldom uses in competitive rounds, using the driver that once headlined his image only once in the first 36 holes, striking fairway shots from spots some 30 yards behind a creaky old coot like Nick Faldo, Woods has divulged the fearsome extent of his repertoire.

It's even more extended than presumed.

They used to say a certain course might constrain him by ruling out his driver; now, here's a course that doesn't require his driver but flatters him because his driver is the most incorrigible club he owns these days and because he's secure enough to resist driving machismo if that's "what the golf course gives me."

His lone driver shot of Thursday and Friday left the 16th tee on Thursday and landed in the fairway -- the 17th fairway.

Point of information: He birdied the hole anyway.

"It's been noted everybody says he doesn't drive the ball real well," said Chris DiMarco, who matched Woods' 65 and played his way into third place, three shots behind Woods and two behind Els. "Well, you know what, he can go back to hitting his irons, hitting two-irons and working the shots."

In Friday's round, this crafty old man of 30 with the 10 major titles used his driver not at all. He played a yeoman assortment of two-irons, three-irons and four-irons (plus three-woods). He repeatedly had his golf ball cuddle into safe spaces underneath fairway bunkers, calling to mind his precision of 2000, when he played St. Andrews for four days without feeding even one ravenous Scottish bunker.

He employed what he deemed the most conservative strategy of any of his 39 majors.

Then he reveled in his "traj," possibly some new text-message term for "trajectory."

His "traj" came up, in fact, just after a paragraph-long question from John Hopkins of the Times of London, who began by saying he'd watched golf for 50 years, then continued, "And if I said that I thought that was the greatest demonstration of mid- and long-iron play I'd ever seen, modesty aside, would you agree with me?"

Woods paused, grinned and stayed wordless as the room laughed.

"OK," Woods began. "To be honest with you, I really felt like I controlled my flight. I really felt like I was able to shape the ball both ways and really control my 'traj.' Sometimes it was higher than others, sometimes really low. But I was able to hit the golf ball on the flight that I really wanted to.

"And when you're doing that, if you look at most of my shots, they were around pin-high. It's awfully nice to do that on a links golf course. It's not easy to do on a links course ... when you have to control the bounce on the greens and fairways."

Follow question: "Have you ever done it better?"

Woods: "Yes."

Question: "When?"

Woods: "I did a pretty good job at Pebble Beach in 2000. I think."

He won that U.S. Open by a surreal 15 shots at age 24, then won the next three majors and five of the next eight and two more in 2005, including the British. Now he turns up among the chorus of Americans extolling Royal Liverpool because it affords a player strategic multiple-choice, including playing conservatively enough that Woods' drives will land well behind Els' today, a curious turn of recent golf events.

Yet Woods' stinginess with a lead might not ebb even if he used wooden spoons, so as Els began his Friday afternoon round eight shots behind Woods, Els knew he had to hurry.

"I didn't want to get crazy aggressive," said the South African, who also shot a 65, "but I needed to keep the pedal, you know, foot on the pedal, or whatever you call it. I needed to try and get close to him. As you know and I know, he's quite a good front-runner."

He's six for six with a lead after 36 holes in majors.

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