Tiger Woods left another tournament after yet another tough round without saying a word to reporters. Then again, maybe he was just hoarse after spending most of Saturday afternoon at the British Open yelling at his golf ball.
''Bite!'' Woods shouted as the swoosh-covered sphere disappeared in the distance down the second fairway. ''Bite ... bite ... bite!''
At No. 6, he tried adding body English to the plea.
''Get down!'' he yelled, stamping his left foot over and over. ''Get down ... get down ... get down!''
Apparently, the golf ball didn't listen.
On a calm, cloudy day when the field averaged even-par 71 and the leaderboard was turned nearly upside down, Woods fought his swing all the way around Royal Lytham & St. Annes and shot 73. That left him at 212, five strokes behind four men who weeks ago were only mentioned in the same sentence when it began this way: ''That Alex Cejka, he's no Tiger Woods ... ''
But now there are 27 such names between Woods and the claret jug he held aloft at St. Andrews last year on that glorious Sunday when he became the youngest golfer ever to complete the career Grand Slam.
Whether Woods has a realistic shot at defending his title remains to be seen. In a two-minute interview with a tournament official inside the scoring trailer, Woods said he hoped to shoot a low number in the final round and ''see what happens.''
What happened next, at least, was encouraging.
Woods zoomed past the assembled media in a cocoon of security guards and went directly to the practice range, where he hooked up with swing coach Butch Harmon. He began his routine in a familiar way -- the way he learned as a kid that Jack Nicklaus did -- with an 8-iron, then started working up through the clubs in his bag. But after a few shots with a mid-iron, Woods reached back and took out the driver that has been the cause of so much grief in recent weeks.
Here, where Woods hits the driver only three or four times a round, the failure has spread to just about every club he uses off the tee. Like Rush Limbaugh, everything is going right. Through three rounds, Woods ranks 42nd in fairways hit out of the 70 players in the field. Saturday, he hit one tee shot underneath a grandstand, and another so far right that after taking a penalty drop, he pitched back over the gallery because moving that many people back behind the ball would have been too much work.
Not surprisingly, the first four swings with the driver on the practice range produced banana-shaped drives that threatened to leave the range. Woods' fifth, though, bored through the air arrow-straight, and continued that way as Harmon occasionally paused to adjust the position of Woods' wrists at the top of the backswing.
Perhaps even less surprising, that was the same adjustment the two worked on at the end of 1997. That season, Woods won the Masters in spectacular fashion. But he couldn't overcome a handful of double- and triple-bogeys at the other three majors, and after a drought extending through the end of the year, Woods and Harmon worked to tighten up his swing.
It's a tribute to all that work that Woods has made only one double bogey at Royal Lytham, with its 196 bunkers and punishing rough. On the other hand, by Woods' own unrealistic expectations, he's in something of a slump. The last time he went three straight tournaments without a top-10 finish was two years ago. If he finishes out of the top 10 at the British Open, it will mark the first time he's done so in four straight since the end of the 1997 season.
At least Woods' demeanor appears to be improving. During a tough opening round at the Western Open in suburban Chicago, his last tournament before crossing the Atlantic, Woods hurled the occasional curse under his breath, flung clubs toward his bag after bad shots and even broke one in two after dumping an approach shot at the 18th into a pond.
He blew off reporters after that round as well. But there, just like here after a 48-minute practice session, Woods was gracious enough afterward to sign a few autographs.
The real shame is that the day started so promisingly. Woods went out four strokes off the lead and with good buddy Mark O'Meara as his playing partner and made three birdies in the first six holes. But at the par-5 seventh, where he could have picked up another birdie, a horrible tee shot into the right rough cost him a double-bogey and he struggled the rest of the way to the clubhouse.
''We needed our golf carts today so we could have got that over quicker,'' O'Meara said afterward. ''I felt bad for Tiger. He's not where he'd like to have it.''
Asked whether the two talked during the round, he grinned.
''A little bit. There wasn't that much because he was hitting some wayward shots out there,'' O'Meara said, ''for him.''
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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