GULLANE, Scotland — Lee Westwood has contended enough in the majors that he can identify important moments, even if he could barely see his ball.
He had a one-shot lead over Tiger Woods, standing in grass up to his knees in the dunes left of the par-3 16th hole. It was one of the few bad shots Westwood hit Saturday at Muirfield, and by far his worst predicament. Westwood slashed at the ball and it didn’t reach the green. He used a putter to belt his next shot up the hill to 12 feet.
What followed was a finish that allowed him to believe he was closer than ever to ending his 20-year pursuit of a major.
Westwood poured in the putt to salvage bogey. He picked up two shots on Woods with a birdie on the next hole. He closed with a solid par, giving him a two-shot lead going into the final round, and most significant Sunday of his career.
“That was probably the biggest momentum thing I did all day – walk off there with a bogey,” Westwood said. “That’s what’s been missing, making those putts. And back it up with a birdie at the next. Those are the sort of things you need to do.”
Had he made putts like that, Westwood might not have missed the playoff at the U.S. Open that Woods won in 2008 at Torrey Pines. Or the playoff at Turnberry in 2009. He might even have been able to hold off Phil Mickelson at the Masters in 2010.
Westwood is widely considered the best player of his generation without a major. Maybe that’s about to change.
The 40-year-old from England passed one big test when he outplayed Woods on another tough day at Muirfield for a 1-under 70 and grabbed a two-shot lead over Woods and Hunter Mahan, the only players still under par.
“Even though I haven’t won a major, I know what it takes to win one,” said Westwood, who was at 3-under 210. “It’s just a case of going out there tomorrow and having the confidence in my game, which I’ve got. And putting it to the test.”
Sunday figures to be the toughest test of all.
Despite his late blunder by hitting into a bunker and making bogey on the par-5 17th, Woods held it together for a 72. Mahan matched the best score of the third round with a 68 and will play in the final group for the second straight major.
“I’ve got 14 of these things, and I know what it takes to win it,” Woods said. “He’s won tournaments all over the world. He knows how to win golf tournaments. He’s two shots ahead and we’re going to go out there and both compete and play. It’s not just us two. There’s a bunch of guys who have a chance to win this tournament. And all of us need to really play well tomorrow to win it.”
Westwood is the 54-hole leader for the second time in his career. He will try to become only the eighth player dating to 1861 to capture his first major in his 40s. He was hopeful the other close calls will serve him well, though the 40-year-old from England didn’t seem all that uptight about it.
“I’m hoping it’s going to turn out differently because I haven’t won one yet and I’d like to win one,” Westwood said. “But what can you do? You can only do what you think is right and put all that practice and hard work you’ve done tomorrow, try not to get in your own way mentally and just focus on the job at hand and believe you’re good enough.”
He was plenty good on another warm, sunny afternoon on a course that was noticeable softer but no less demanding.
Woods lost his chance to get in the final group with one swing.
Tied with Westwood as they played the par-5 17th into a stiff breeze off the Firth of Forth, Woods tried to hit 3-wood over a series of bunkers to allow for a simple wedge into the green. With his ball on the slightest slope, he got it up in the air just enough that the wind grabbed it and deposited the ball in the bunker. Woods had to blast out sideways and missed a 15-foot par putt.
Woods twice had at least a share of the 36-hole lead in majors a year ago and fell out of contention on Saturday. Despite the late bogey, he did well enough this time that he was only two shots behind. This is his best chance to end his five-year drought in the majors since the upheaval in his personal life at the end of 2009.
And while he has never won a major when trailing going into the last day, the outlook didn’t look bleak from his vantage point.
“I’m only two back,” Woods said. “There’s only one guy ahead of me.”
Instead of playing with Westwood in the final group, Woods will be in the penultimate group with Masters champion Adam Scott, who had a 70. The Australian not only is poised to be the first player with a multiple-major season in seven years, he can atone for his meltdown a year ago at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
“I go out there tomorrow not carrying the weight of the lead or not having won a major,” Scott said. “So it’s a different feeling.”
Mahan made only two bogeys, and he avoided a third on the final hole when he made a 25-foot putt to save par from the bunker. He played with Mickelson in the final round at Merion and stayed in the game until late in the round, closing with a 75. One month later, he gets another crack at it.
And there are plenty of others still in the game – five major champions within five shots of the lead, a list that goes down to Mickelson at five shots behind.
Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera opened with 12 pars and had a roller-coaster finish – double bogey, birdie, bogey – for a 73. He was at 1-over 214, along with former Masters champion Zach Johnson (73), Henrik Stenson (74) and Ryan Moore (72).
But it starts with Westwood, who can add to the British celebration of sport by capturing his first major. He certainly looked up to the task over 18 holes in the third round, and he didn’t seem the least bit uptight when asked to think about what was at stake Sunday.
“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, trying to keep the mood light.
He sees nothing wrong with imagining his name on the base of the claret jug, ending all those questions about whether he has the game and guts to win a major. But when he steps to the first tee Sunday, it’s all about finding the short, yellow grass carved out of rough that looks like a Kansas wheat field.
“I should be in the same frame of mind as I was today,” Westwood said. “I didn’t feel any pressure today – felt nice and calm out there and in control of what I was doing.”
Miguel Angel Jimenez didn’t lose control. He just lost the lead.
The 49-year-old Spaniard found too many bunkers, missed too many fairways and dropped far too many shots. He wound up with a 77, six shots behind.
Woods was never far from the lead, even during four two-shot swings involving Westwood.
The first one came on the par-5 fifth hole. Woods proved there was a driver under that tiger head cover by smashing his tee shot down the fairway, though he wound up missing a 6-foot birdie putt, while Westwood rolled in a 50-foot eagle putt from just short of the green.
Westwood hit a high shot that settled 4 feet from the cup at the par-3 seventh while Woods hammered a 9-iron through the green and made bogey. Westwood led by as many as three shots, but they were tied at the turn when Westwood found a bunker of the tee and made bogey, while Woods had a simple up-and-down for birdie.
The last three holes changed everything – a bogey that could have been much worse, a birdie to build a cushion, a par for confidence.