GULLANE, Scotland – So much was still to happen when Tiger Woods arrived Friday afternoon at Muirfield’s 18th green. At that moment, the flags above the massive grandstands stood at full attention, a warning to those yet to tee off. The golf course behind him had settled in for a nice, long bake in the Scottish sun. Brown and crisp as a hash brown, it didn’t appear inclined to give up much.
With that, Woods drew his putter back and made the 15-footer that gave him his final birdie and an even-par round of 71 for the day, leaving him at 2 under at the midway point of the 142nd British Open, eliciting a jab with the left hand, his putter a wand. He is, as he likes to say, right there, a shot behind leader Miguel Angel Jimenez, a Spaniard who is every bit 49 years old on his face but closer to 21 in his heart.
“I have not the right to do it?” Jimenez said after his own 71 pushed him up a board in which everyone seemed to be moving down. “Only the young people can do it?”
No, right now, it seems a nice, solid handful of people could do it. But first Woods, because there were a few things about his game that made that three-birdie, three-bogey round seem ominous. As his playing partner, former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said: “He’s going to be dangerous.”
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The most dangerous element here, for the moment, is Muirfield itself. It yielded four rounds in the 60s all of Friday, when 16 failed to break 80. It cast aside Rory McIlroy, the second-ranked player in the world, who missed the cut at 12 over. And so when Woods finished his round close to 2 p.m., he could go get a meal and watch the field come back to him on a course that became harder — to the touch, and to the scorecard — as the day wore on.
The grind was “beyond anything I’ve ever played in,” said Brandt Snedeker, who played the final six holes in 7 over to fall off the leaderboard. “It’s very, very hard to hit a ball where you’re supposed to, and very, very hard to keep the ball where you’re supposed to.”
So the list of threats to Jimenez’s lead is pared down, but filled with tough competitors. England’s Lee Westwood, a major contender without a major championship, shot a 68 early and joins Woods at 2 under. Sweden’s Henrik Stenson is also at 2 under after his second straight 70, and Dustin Johnson joined them there after a 72 that featured two birdies, an eagle and five bogeys.
But consider the 19 players no more than four shots off the lead.
That list includes Phil Mickelson, who is 1 over despite a four-putt on the 16th hole. It includes Masters champ Adam Scott, quiet with rounds of 71 and 72 to sit at 1 over. It includes two-time major winner Angel Cabrera, who looked as if he might join Jimenez before he bogeyed three of his final five holes to land at 1 under.
Ryan Moore (70) of Puyallup was in 10th at even par. Seattle native Fred Couples (74) was tied for 58th place at 7 over. Kyle Stanley (82-69—151) of Gig Harbor missed the cut even though he was among the quartet with a sub-70 second round.
Woods’ stretch of futility is, by now, well documented. The most recent of his 14 major championships came at the 2008 U.S. Open. Since then, he has played 16 majors without a victory — but has finished in the top six eight times.
“I’ve put myself there,” Woods said. “I just haven’t won. I’ve had the chances on the back nine on many of those Sundays. Just one of those things where I haven’t gotten it.”
This is not, though, a casual pursuit, not just “one of those things.” What lies ahead for Woods this weekend at Muirfield will help define his career, furthering one of two things: his legacy or his drought.
And there is a discouraging recent trend. In the six majors since the start of 2012, Woods has cumulatively scored 6 under par in the first and second rounds. Thereafter, he is 29 over.
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