GULLANE, Scotland (AP) — Lee Westwood is positioned to win the first major title of his career.
Boy, does that sound familiar.
Long considered one of the best players without a major victory on his resume, the Englishman curled in a 60-foot eagle putt on the way to a 1-under 70 Saturday that put him two strokes ahead of Tiger Woods and Hunter Mahan.
The 40-year-old Westwood has been a perennial contender in golf’s marquee events, finishing second or third a staggering seven times.
But he’s never been able to finish the job. He’ll try to do it Sunday at baked-out Muirfield, playing in the final group with Mahan.
Westwood made it sound like no big deal.
“Well, actually, I’m not in a high-pressure situation, because I’m going to go have dinner, and I’m so good with a knife and fork now that I don’t feel any pressure at all,” he said, smiling. “I’ll think about winning the Open championship tonight at some stage, I’m sure. I don’t see anything wrong with that, picture yourself holding the claret jug at the final tee and seeing your name at the top of the leaderboard.”
And, he added, “when it comes time to tee off around 3-ish, I should be in the same frame of mind as I was today. I didn’t feel any pressure and felt nice and calm out there and in control of what I was doing.”
Woods will be in the next-to-last pairing after shooting 72, a stumble at the end leaving him two shots behind Westwood’s 54-hole total of 3-under 210.
They are the only three players under par for the championship.
“I’m pleased where I’m at,” Woods said. “There’s only one guy ahead of me.”
Adam Scott is again a contender for the claret jug, though this time he’ll have to come from behind. Last year, he seemed to have it wrapped up at Lytham until he bogeyed the final four holes, a stunning collapse that left him one stroke behind Ernie Els.
Scott matched Westwood’s 70 and was at 213.
At least the Aussie doesn’t have the burden of not winning a major. He took care of that in April with a playoff win at the Masters.
“It’s a good feeling to sit here in this position, absolutely,” Scott said. “It’s completely different. I go out there tomorrow not carrying the weight of the lead or not having won a major. So it’s a different feeling.”
Miguel Angel Jimenez, the popular 36-hole leader, faded from contention on a miserable day. The Mechanic bogeyed four of the first eight holes, unable to scramble for pars as he did the first two days when his drives and iron shots got away from him. He limited the damage with birdies at the ninth and 13th, but things can turn quickly at Muirfield.
Jimenez bogeyed the 14th, took a double-bogey at the 16th when he needed two swings to escape a towering pot bunker alongside the green, and a lipped-out putt on 17 gave him another bogey. The 49-year-old staggered to the finish with a 77 and 216 total, his one-shot lead after Friday now a six-shot deficit going to Sunday.
Those closing holes were crucial.
One shot ahead of Woods, Westwood faced the possible three-shot swing at the 16th when he yanked his tee shot into the tall grass, far left of the green, and Woods plopped his ball about 20 feet away from the flag on the right.
Westwood whacked at his ball but couldn’t make it onto the green, watching it roll back to the edge of the second cut. Then he putted it up the hill, the ball stopping about 15 feet short of the cup. As Woods lined up a possible birdie, Westwood knew he could do no better than bogey — or worse.
Woods’ putt stopped right alongside the hole, a tap-in par. Westwood calmly rolled his ball right in the center of the cup, having surrendered only one stroke to his playing partner.
As it turned out, the big swing came at the next hole. Westwood made another clutch putt on the par-5 17th, sinking a 12-footer for birdie. Woods made a sloppy bogey after a baffling mistake, shanking his second shot in a fairway bunker.
“He played solid,” Woods said of Westwood. “He hit a couple of loose shots here and there, but he really played well. He made a couple of big putts at 16 and 17. And it looked like he was going to make double there (on 16) and made a nice birdie on 17.”
the finishing holes denied Woods at least a share of the 54-hole lead in a major for the first time since the 2009 PGA Championship.
He has never won any of his 14 major titles when trailing after three rounds. He had never lost one from that position, either, until Y.E. Yang pulled off a stunning upset at Hazeltine nearly four years ago.
Woods hasn’t been in that position since then, his life turned upside down by scandalous affairs and divorce while his golf game was plagued by physical problems and a swing change. The last time he won a major was the 2008 U.S. Open, leaving him in an 0-for-16 slump that is the longest of his career, a stretch that includes missing four other majors because of injuries.
He looks healthy at Muirfield and still has a shot at moving closer to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles.
“I’ve been in this position before, in the past five years, and I’ve been in that hunt on that mix,” Woods said. “And I’m in it again. Hopefully tomorrow I can play well and win the tournament.”
Westwood briefly put himself three shots clear of the field on the front side, the most memorable shot a long, curling putt off the front of the fifth green for eagle. Woods fought back into a tie as they made the turn, Westwood grabbed the lead again with a birdie at the 14th, before Woods pulled even at 16.
Of course, it doesn’t take long for things to change at this course along the Forth of Firth, where the Scottish weather has been postcard-perfect — sunny, temperatures in the 70s, with nary a hint of rain — but the course has proven to be a brutal test. The fairways could pass for paved roads. The greens are as firm as a snooker table.
Mahan quietly moved into contention with a barely noticed 68, the best score among those at the top. Like Westwood, he has contended in majors, but hasn’t been able to finish.
“Probably my short game hasn’t probably been as strong as it needed to be,” he said. “I’m chipping and putting great and doing all the right things. So I feel comfortable with my game and excited about the opportunity and just have to go out there and trust it and let it happen.”
On Saturday, he could go about his business without much distraction.
Most of the attention was focused on Westwood and Woods.
That figures to be the case again on Sunday, two stars of the game chasing very different goals.
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