Woods slips, recovers for 2-shot lead

He saves par at 17, gets birdie at 18 for 1-under 71

Olazabal second after 68

British Open

Final round today TV: 6 a.m., TNT

8 a.m., Chs. 2, 7


ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - There was no happy motoring for the Tiger Woods bandwagon yesterday at the Old Course, where his lead shriveled and nearly disappeared.

But Woods himself was not all that bothered by his 1-under-par round of 71 that left him with a two-shot lead over Jose Maria Olazabal in his quest for a second British Open title.

The two shots were half of what he led by when the third round began, but that was also before he started visiting places on the course that should have remained off limits, such as gnarly gorse bushes and knee-high rough.

Still, Woods found it difficult to quibble, because a lead is still a lead, even if it was not quite so comfortable a one. He said he didn't care.

"I'm very happy to be in the lead," Woods said. "The conditions got a little bit difficult [on the back nine]. ... It's hard to get the ball close. I tried not to drop any [shots] coming home.

"To have the lead all day and actually end up with the lead is pretty sweet."

And so, one of the greatest front-runners in golf has a chance to keep it going. Woods has led or shared the 54-hole lead nine times in majors and he has won all nine times, including in this year's Masters.

His record in regular PGA Tour events is almost as good - he's 31-for-34 when leading or tied for the lead after 54 holes.

His reputation as a closer is probably going to help today, he said.

"I think it certainly doesn't hurt. Having the experience to call upon and knowing how to handle going out there and playing with the lead, I've done it before. So I can always say that and believe in it."

Woods, with a 12-under 204 total, was more than slightly relieved that he was able to save par on the 17th - the Road Hole - after hitting his blind tee shot over the black shed at the Old Course Hotel and landing in deep rough, left of the fairway.

Saving par from such a position made his two-putt birdie from 150 feet at the 18th all the more rewarding, he said.

At the 17th, Woods' second shot was short of the green and he rolled the ball up the slope and onto the putting surface, but 10 feet past the hole. He then knocked in the putt and gestured with his fist. It was a big-time putt performed at the perfect moment.

"At that time, if I missed that putt, I would go back to over par and I'd have to birdie 18 just to get back to level par. Just to work that hard and have to birdie 18 to get back to even par, I couldn't see that happening. So might as well make the putt and birdie 18 to finish under par."

Olazabal's 68 gave him a 54-hole score of 206. His round included a 60-foot eagle putt at the 12th and a curvy, 15-foot birdie putt at the 18th, which meant he picked up three shots on Woods on a day when the leader didn't have his best stuff.

Retief Goosen did have his best stuff, shooting a 66 that left him in a tie for third at 207 with Colin Montgomerie, who hung tough playing with Woods and shot a 2-under 70.

Afterward, Montgomerie said Woods remained the man to beat, regardless of how he played yesterday.

"But I know, as well as everyone else knows in this field, that Tiger has probably had his hiccup today, and he got round under par because the later starters had the most difficult of the conditions," Montgomerie said.

"It's a seven-mile walk tomorrow and he's obviously the favorite as he started the tournament. He copes with the pressure and the situation around him - being Tiger Woods - incredibly well. And if he does win this again, it's an amazing effort."

Sergio Garcia, who shot his second straight 69, and Brad Faxon are at 208, and Michael Campbell and Vijay Singh are five shots behind Woods at 209.

Olazabal is a two-time Masters champion who failed to qualify for the British Open but found a place in the field as the first alternate. He said he's just happy to be here.

"Well, obviously, I'm not going to be as relaxed as I am right now if I'm leading the event teeing off 17, that's for sure, but I'll try to have as much fun as possible," he said.

"What can I say? I'm enjoying the tournament a lot."

The same is true for Goosen, who trailed Woods by eight shots when the day began, but birdied four of his last five holes.

"It was great," said Goosen, who said he really hasn't played that well all year, pointing to his third-round 75 in the Masters and his final-round 81 in the U.S. Open that left him tied for 11th after he'd held the 54-hole lead.

Once again, Goosen insisted his Sunday collapse at Pinehurst is old news.

"No, I'm not determined to make up for it," he said. "It was just one of those things that happened. I'd just like to give myself a chance every time on Sunday and hopefully one day it works out and you win again. That's all you can do."

Woods could only wish for a Goosen-like stretch of birdies, but the course wasn't as kind when he played as it was for those who went out in the morning.

"It became very, very difficult," he said.

The Old Course probably isn't going to get any easier today, even for the best closer out there.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Leader board

The leader ...

Tiger Woods 66-67-71-204 ... and selected followers

J. Maria Olazabal 68-70-68-206

Retief Goosen 68-73-66-207

C. Montgomerie 71-66-70-207

Sergio Garcia 70-69-69-208

Michael Campbell 69-72-68-209

Vijay Singh 69-69-71-209

John Daly 71-69-70-210

Complete scores. Page 12E

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