GULLANE, Scotland — Lee Westwood passed his first big test Saturday when he outplayed Tiger Woods and grabbed a two-shot lead in the British Open.
The next one figures to be the toughest test of all.
Westwood somehow salvaged a bogey from the knee-high grass on the 16th, pulled ahead of Woods with a birdie on the 17th and was solid down the last hole for a 1-under 70 that gave him a two-shot lead going into the final day at Muirfield.
Widely considered the best player of his generation to have never won a major, Westwood is the 54-hole leader for the second time. Phil Mickelson overtook him in the Masters three years ago. Two other times, Westwood missed a playoff by one shot.
“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.”
After three days on brittle, brown Muirfield, only three players remained under par.
Westwood was at 3-under 210, two shots clear of Woods (72) and Hunter Mahan, whose 68 matched the best score of the third round. Mahan, also going after that maiden major with far fewer credentials than Westwood, will be playing in the final group at his second straight major.
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’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.”
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.
Westwood hit his tee shot on the par-3 16th into his worst lie of the week, so bad that his chip out of high grass barely got out and tumbled down the fairway. But he limited the damage to bogey by making a 12-foot putt.
“That was probably the biggest momentum thing I did all day -- walk off there with a bogey,” Westwood said. “There’s so many bad things that could have happened from there. I was pleased to make 4. But that’s what’s been missing -- making those putts, and backing it up with a birdie at the next. Those are the sorts of things you need to do.”
He has done that before -- on a Saturday.
At stake Sunday is a chance to end his 20-year pursuit of a major. A chance to become the first English winner of golf’s oldest championship since 1992 when Nick Faldo won at Muirfield.