By Jim Litke
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland - If the only measure of a successful golf season is whether Tiger Woods wins a major, then this one is fast becoming a flop.
Woods tried to get a grip on the British Open on Saturday, but it was tough enough just holding onto his clubs. The intermittent drizzle that fell early across cool, gray Carnoustie turned into a steady downpour by round's end and made it hard on everyone. But Woods, uncharacteristically, looked more fidgety than most.
No matter how many times he toweled off his grips, they never seemed dry enough. Once, twice, three times in a row he cleaned the face of his irons by wiping them against a pant leg, and on more than one occasion across his shirt sleeve. That never seemed to quite satisfy Woods, either.
No doubt, some of that was watching his quest to become the first golfer in 51 years to win three of these in a row begin circling the drain. And though Woods would never say so, some of it might have had to do with the man - Sergio Garcia - poised to pull the plug.
"It's a major and the conditions have been a little bit frustrating," Woods said after a 69 left him eight strokes off Garcia's lead.
Woods, 31, and Garcia, 27, were two of golf's most-heralded prodigies and began what was supposed to be a rivalry for the ages at the 1999 PGA Championship. So far it's been one-sided.
Woods won that major, a dozen in all, six of them when Garcia finished in the top five. Woods has failed to win a major in only three of his 11 years on tour; Garcia is still chasing his first one.
After shooting 68, Garcia was asked whether it would be a relief to find himself in the final pairing Sunday without "you know who."
"It definitely doesn't hurt," Garcia replied, "but it doesn't matter. At the end of the day, like I was saying before, I only depend on myself."
Woods never believes he's out of a tournament, and Garcia's disclaimer aside, neither does anyone else. Fans want to see familiar names atop the leaderboard and Woods is the only one that casual followers of the game recognize.
But he needs a foil to make us care, the way Arnold Palmer needed Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, and then Nicklaus needed Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. Several players have auditioned opposite Woods - Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh - but none locked up the part.
Woods, on the other hand, has rarely looked this vulnerable. At this year's Masters and U.S. Open, he began the final day in the final pairing _ once a guarantee of a win _ and failed to seal the deal. Both times he grabbed the lead in the final round - yet another guarantee that Woods was going to win - only to let it go.
For the all the things he's already accomplished, Woods has yet to come off the pace in the last round of a major and wrest the trophy from someone else.
Zach Johnson was so worried he might be the first victim at the Masters that he parked himself in front of a television set in the Augusta clubhouse and wouldn't leave until Woods' approach shot from the 18th fairway failed to roll into the hole. Then at the U.S. Open, Angel Cabrera feared he, too, would become the first and wouldn't take his eyes off the locker room TV, either, until he was sure Woods had no more miracles up his sleeve.
Asked whether the challenge of coming from behind might be the spark he needed to conjure up a magical round, Woods sounded a practical note.
"Well," he said, "I'm in the position I've dealt myself."
He got there by playing brilliantly one moment, very un-Tiger-like the next. After bogeying No. 2, Woods made back-to-back birdies at Nos. 4 and 5, only to conk a spectator with his approach shot at the sixth and, rattled, miss an easy birdie opportunity.
The injured woman, 63-year-old Jennifer Wilson, got two stitches to close the wound and went back out in hopes that Woods would sign the ball.
"My wife did him a favor," her husband, Cecil, said. "She headed it back in for him."
The way he's striking the ball, Woods couldn't come all the way back to win even with fans like the Wilsons lining every fairway. And even if Garcia cracks - he's three strokes clear of Steve Stricker, his closest pursuer - Woods would have to leapfrog 16 other golfers, a feat that seems possible only if the course is at its most brutal.
"I've got to be playing a little better than I have been, that's for sure. But at least I gave myself a chance going into tomorrow," he said again. "Paul (Lawrie) came back from 10 back in '99. Certainly you can do it around this golf course."
Just not this time.
Still, if this Open marks the real beginning of the Woods-Garcia rivalry, you can say golf won, too.