ST ANDREWS // The career priority for the previously all-conquering Tiger Woods formerly centred around ending the argument over whether he is the greatest golfer of all time. To claim that honour he knows he has to overtake Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major titles. After fourth-place finishes at the US Masters and the US Open, and especially after yesterday's 23rd-place finish at the British Open, Woods probably will now be happy just being in contention for the title at the final major, the US PGA Championship next month.
Two years ago, when Woods bravely cajoled a creaking knee through five rounds of the testing course of Torrey Pines to overcome a stubborn Rocco Mediate in a play-off for the US Open, Woods looked certain to remove all doubt that he was the best player ever to swing a club. No more. Nine majors have come and gone since Woods celebrated winning his 14th major in California that day and announcing the need for a prolonged layoff to correct the damage in his knee.
His injuries prevented him from playing in the first two of those tournaments. But in the other seven only once has he seriously looked like winning - in last year's PGA Championship, when he came off worse in a final-day shoot-out against YE Yang. The world No 1 knocked on the door at this year's Masters and US Open, and after posting an impressive first-round score of 67 on his return to St Andrews, where he had prevailed so emphatically in 2000 and 2005, it seemed another strong challenge was in the offing.
Woods has looked like most of the other American visitors, though, as he has struggled to make an impact on what has, with the notable exception of the triumphant South African Louis Oosthuizen, been a predominantly European leaderboard. Yesterday, beginning his final-round 12 shots behind, he needed to make an early charge to let those ahead of him know he was still around. When, having reverted to the old putter he had thrown out of his bag at the start of the week, he birdied two of his first three holes, that surge through the field was a distinct possibility.
An embarrassing failure to extract his ball from a bunker at the fourth wrecked that plan. As he trudged off after tapping in for a six he knew his race was run. By the time he walked down the 18th green to the type of thunderous applause befitting a former hero of these famous links, he was worse off than when he started. The closing birdie demanded by the galleries restored him to parity for the day and three-under par for the tournament, leaving him to reflect on what he might have achieved if his putters had responded more positively to the desperate demands of their various characteristics. "I believe I had nine three-putts for the week so I'm pretty far down the board," Woods said. "You can't expect to win golf tournaments as big as this one if you do that. I have got to clean that up before I tee it up again."
Woods said he was unsure which of the two putters he has used at St Andrews would be in his bag the next time he plays. "I didn't feel comfortable with my speed for the first three days which is why I went back to my old putter today." Woods will fly home to regroup in advance of the PGA, reasonably satisfied with the rest of his game. "I drove it on a string all week and hit my irons pretty well, although the irons are not quite as sharp as I need to have them," he said. "My short game is pretty good, too, but not when it comes to the putting."
After coming through the most turbulent of spells in his private life, he tried to put on an optimistic face about the future. "I would like to have won again here," he said. "But that's the way it goes in this game. I have lost a lot more times than I have won." email@example.com