By Bill Dwyre
Los Angeles Times
GULLANE, Scotland: Today at the British Open could bring one of the great three-way matchups in golf history: Tiger Woods versus British favorite son Lee Westwood versus a nightmare named Muirfield.
Westwood smiled his way around the rough and sharp edges of Muirfield on Saturday for a 70 that left him at 3-under-par 210 and put him 2 shots ahead of Woods and Hunter Mahan.
Masters Tournament champion Adam Scott is next at even par, followed by four at 1 over, including the irrepressible Zach Johnson, and two at 2 over, including the often magical and ever unpredictable Phil Mickelson.
In what could be an interesting pairing today, Woods will be with Scott, who hired Woods’ longtime caddy, Stevie Williams, after Woods fired him.
Though as many as 20 players could make a run, the day will focus, at least as it begins, on the storylines of Woods and Westwood.
Woods has won 14 major tournaments, but none since the U.S. Open in Torrey Pines in 2008. His struggles to get back in form, and on track again in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors, have been one of the larger ongoing stories in sports in the last four years.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge of it,” he said, after he finished his 1-over round of 72. “I’ve been in this position before, in the past five years ... and I’m in it again.”
In the world of sports perception, these are big stakes for the controversial Woods. If he wins, many will proclaim, joyously, that he is back. If he fails to win, many will proclaim, joyously, that this failure shows he never will be.
There hardly could be a more qualified or interesting foil for Woods in this drama.
Westwood, once No. 1 in world rankings, just turned 40. He’s three years older than longtime and current No. 1 Woods, and has played in 61 majors without winning one. But he has finished in the top 10 15 times and in the top five 10 times. In 2010, he was second in both the Masters and British Open.
To most, that 0-for-61 would be the ultimate monkey on your back. To Westwood, a laid-back, witty Brit, it is not. Or so he claims.
“It’s not the end of the world [if I lose],” he said Saturday.
He also said that he has won 40 times worldwide, meaning he knows how to do this, and that the obvious pressures involved here affect him less than most might think.
“I don’t live my life from outside in,” he said. “I don’t live it and run it according to what other people think. I live it the other way around. I have my own ideas and my own dreams and plans.”
On a golf course that is as flexible and giving to players as a steel beam, Westwood actually got a lead up to 3 shots with a long eagle putt on the par-five fifth hole.
The shot rattled in, and Westwood was asked if he intended it to go in at that pace.
“I intended for it to go in,” he said, with his usual dry wit. “I was aiming at the hole.”
But two holes later, he was back in a tie with Woods, who birdied No. 9 on top of a Westwood bogey.
Woods had a shot at cutting today’s lead to 1, but left a 20-footer for birdie short on No. 18.
Mahan, a 2010 U.S. Ryder Cup team member, shot 68 and shared best score of the day with Sergio Garcia and Richard Sterne. Scott’s 1-under 70 was a model of consistency. He started at 1 over par, made two bogeys and three birdies for his 70 and 213.
Woods did a quick hit-and-run interview with the media. Westwood stuck around longer and didn’t duck questions of expectations stemming from the British frenzy here that thinks the Andy-Murray-winning-at-Wimbledon karma certainly will work for Westwood.
“I’ll think about winning the Open tonight, at some stage,” Westwood said. “I don’t see anything wrong with that, picturing yourself holding the Claret Jug at the final tee and seeing your name at the top of the leaderboard.”
Woods has held that trophy three times, and his mind’s picture, undoubtedly, will be the similar. Same for Mahan, Scott and a handful of others.
In the end, Muirfield, that minefield of golf agony, will decide.