Tiger Woods plays out of a bunker onto the 14th green during the third round… (Peter Morrison / Associated…)
GULLANE, Scotland — I never thought it would come to this, but I'm starting to feel sorry for these pro golfers.
First we had the recent U.S. Open at Merion and now this, the British chain-saw massacre at Muirfield. My hero and mentor, Jim Murray, used to tell us to root for the golf course. Stories of human anguish are great ones, he reasoned.
But how much pain and suffering can we watch? This is real agony, not a Hollywood version.
Yes, these guys make more money in four days than most of us have in our entire 401(k)s. And they drive around in cars we'll only get to in our dreams. But think about having to make your living rolling a hard little ball into a tiny little hole on an ice rink, four hours a day, four days a week, to get paid.
The winning score at Merion was one over par. In the third round here at Muirfield, par was Valhalla. Three players bested it. Three or four strokes over, and you were talking about "being nicely positioned."
Putting is the deal in golf, and these big-time events seem to be designed to neutralize skill in that. They ought to start calling these The Lag Putt Opens.
These golfers all carry handicaps well south of scratch. They are the best in the world, obviously. They hit a million practice putts a year. But when they had the flat stick in their hands at Merion, and the same here, they look liked guys leaving the tavern at 2 a.m. They shouldn't drive and they sure couldn't putt. At least not on the greased skids of Merion and Muirfield.
At Muirfield, everywhere and every time we looked, a putt went sliding past the hole. Or stopping short. Yes, it is dry and windy and fast. But 2-footers? Ten-inchers? Do the holes move here? Are they smaller? Do they have lids?
Friday night, a group of writers watched a telecast of last year's True South Classic, replayed because this year's tournament was in a rain delay. It was stunning. Players hit putts and they went in. The clank in the bottom of the cup was a magical sound not heard much by many of us in recent weeks. We got kind of giddy, just watching and listening.
Have the people who set up these courses for the huge events taken their cue from Jim Murray? Have the U.S. Golf Assn., and the Royal and Ancient, become completely evil torturers? Do you want your children watching this?
Will too much of this drive golf fans away from their TV sets? We don't let our children watch programs with snakes eating squirrels. Why would we let them watch Muirfield eat Tiger?
The harder these courses get, the more defense these guys have to play. It's getting like the NFL. Your best offense is a great defense. Fred Couples said it best after his round Saturday.
"It's so fast and so hard to putt," he said, "that guys who are seven over are still too afraid to attack."
The scary greens, understandably part of the deal in majors, are so scary here that nobody can get a run, strut their stuff, pull away.
Before Lee Westwood birdied No. 17 — yes, the putt went in — the race for the lead was like one of those Olympic marathons. One Kenyan breaks away, then the other Kenyan reels him back in. Westwood actually had a three-shot lead at one point on the front nine, but he lost two shots on the next two holes. Some putts didn't go in.
On No. 18, with Westwood two ahead of the field at three under, Woods was 20 feet away for a birdie chance. Three guesses what happened: 1) the putt slid past; 2) the putt was short; 3) the putt went in.
Eliminate No. 3, of course.
Woods' putt stopped short and Westwood will take a two-shot lead into Sunday's house-of-horrors finale. He and Woods, along with a charging Hunter Mahan, are the only players under par heading into the final round.
Turn on your TV sets at your own risk. Sympathy cards to individual players can be addressed in care of the R & A, St. Andrews, Scotland.