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For Woods, path open to victory

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - Maybe Tom Morris - Old or Young, take your pick - can be raised from the dead to play Tiger Woods on their terms with their clubs at their Old Course.

Maybe Tom Watson, one of only three men in history to win the British Open five times, can have a few strokes taken off his scorecard here and a couple of decades given back to his game.

Or maybe, as Nick Faldo suggested before the 129th Open began Thursday, Tiger Woods should just play blindfolded. It might be the only way for Faldo's Open scoring record to survive today's final round.

It also might be the only way for anybody else to have a chance.

If not for a couple of sloppy putts yesterday, Woods might have shot better than 5-under-par 67 and, at 16-under-par 200 over 54 holes, have more than a six-shot lead over David Duval and Thomas Bjorn of Denmark.

As it is, it seems certain that Woods, 24, will win his second straight major championship and become the youngest player to complete a career Grand Slam. He will be the fifth do so, joining legends Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

Given his remarkable 18-2 record when tied or leading a tournament going into the final round, and given the way Woods finished yesterday with four birdies on the last seven holes, the thought of a collapse is not in anyone's head. Except, perhaps, Woods'.

"I think anytime you have a lead, you feel a certain amount of pressure," said Woods. "The bigger the lead, the more pressure you feel. Obviously, if you don't end up winning, you're going to feel not so good about yourself at the end of the day that you let a wonderful opportunity go.

"I've had big leads and I've been able to succeed before, but we'll see tomorrow."

Woods is certainly getting accustomed to being in this position after three rounds in a major. He led last month's U.S. Open by 10 strokes, winning by a record 15. He led the 1997 Masters by nine strokes and won by a record 12. He shared a two-shot lead in last year's PGA Championship, and won by one.

As he did last month at Pebble Beach, Woods has a chance to erase some of the game's greatest players from the record books.

Start with Nicklaus, who was 26 when he finished his first career Grand Slam. Add Faldo, whose score of 18-under-par 270 was shot here 10 years ago. Woods can now go after Old Tom Morris' record for margin of victory in a British Open, 13 shots set in 1862. He already took the legendary Morris - the patron saint of this hallowed ground - out of the books for the largest margin of victory in a major.

Told by a British journalist that Faldo "fears" his record being broken, Woods laughed.

"I don't think he fears it, I know Nick doesn't fear it, that's for sure," said Woods, who will also be looking for his sixth victory of the season, the 21st of his four-year career and the 13th in his last 23 events. "Whatever happens, happens. I'm going to go out there and play the best I can. If I break it, so be it. If I don't, so be it."

Asked if he has ever lost a six-shot lead at any point in his career as an amateur or a pro, Woods said, "A six-shot lead? I don't believe so. Can I? Yeah, that's possible. I'd have to go out there and not exactly execute the shots and David [Duval] or someone else like Thomas or someone else at 8 or 9 [under] has to play a wonderful round of golf."

Duval, the world's second-ranked player, did that yesterday with a 6-under-par 66 that included a 6-foot birdie on the final hole. It put Duval, still looking for his first major championship, into the final pairing, if not quite into serious contention.

"I most definitely wanted to make that putt," said Duval, 28, who will also be looking to end a 16-month winless drought that came after he won 11 times in 34 events. "I just wanted to be there."

So did David Toms for the second straight day. But after getting to within a stroke of the lead when he birdied and Woods bogeyed the par-4 second hole - breaking a streak of 63 straight holes in a major without a bogey - the 33-year-old American failed to hold ground by shooting 1-under-par 71.

At 9-under-par 207, Toms is tied with Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland (68) and PGA Tour veteran Loren Roberts (70). Four others are eight shots behind: former British Open champion Tom Lehman (70), two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els (70, including a double-bogey on the short, par-4 13th), left-hander Steve Flesch and Dennis Paulson.

The normally affable Els, who had the dubious distinction of finishing tied for a distant second at the U.S. Open this year, was so disappointed that he left the grounds without comments. Others who stuck around to talk had some of the same feeling of helplessness when it comes to competing against Woods.

"It's definitely a strange feeling," said Australian Stuart Appleby, who finished early in the day with a 4-under-par 68 only to find himself 11 shots behind going into today's round. "You're playing for second place. Tiger Woods at the moment is a shot to a shot and a half each day better than anyone else even when they're playing their best. He has a sixth gear, the rest of us have five."

"I'm frustrated," said Lehman, who led by six shots after three rounds at Royal Lytham in 1996 and ended up winning by three. "I look at the board and I'm just getting lapped and that's no fun. I threw away, let get away, four or five shots today and there's really no reason that I couldn't be in there tomorrow. Within three or four shots, there's always hope but eight shots back or more, it's going to be pretty difficult for me."

Or anyone else in this game of seemingly trivial pursuit. Even when Woods opened the door a crack by missing a 3-footer for par on the second hole, he came right back with a birdie.

After making five birdies in a stretch of seven holes beginning when he stuck a 6-iron to within 18 inches on the par-3 eighth - including three straight birdies from the 12th through 14th - Woods opened the door ever so slightly, three-putting the par-4 17th Road Hole. Then he closed it, probably for good, by making a 10-footer for birdie at 18.

And what about his pairing with Duval?

"I'm going to enjoy it," said Woods. "David and I are great friends. We're going out there and play. I think that's something the public has always been wanting to have one and two playing each other in the final round of a major. Tomorrow we have that opportunity."

Has anybody seen Old Tom Morris or his son lately? Or a young Tom Watson? Better yet, does anybody have a blindfold?

It may be the only thing keeping the world's best player from another date with history here at the most historic course in golf.

British Open

Third-round leader ...

Tiger Woods 67-66-67-200 ...

and selected followers

David Duval 70-70-66-206

Thomas Bjorn 69-69-68-206

Darren Clarke 70-69-68-207

Loren Roberts 69-68-70-207

David Toms 69-67-71-207

Steve Flesch 67-70-71-208

Tom Lehman 68-70-70-208

Ernie Els 66-72-70-208

Phil Mickelson 72-66-71-209

Fred Couples 70-68-72-210

Sergio Garcia 68-69-73-210

Complete scores. [Page 16e]

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