Originally created 07/20/02

He knows, they know: It's over



GULLANE, Scotland -- Tiger Woods isn't knocking down the flags at Muirfield the way he did at Pebble Beach. Yet.

He isn't slam-dunking one putt after another, the way he does when he gets on a roll at Augusta National, either.

It hardly matters.

It hardly matters, either, whether Woods is ahead, tied for the lead or, as in this case, playing from two strokes behind.

The 131st British Open has a feel of inevitability about it already, in the same way that the prevailing winds from the northwest will make themselves felt across this far corner of Scotland before the tournament is through. Woods has been playing conservatively, as though preparing for the tougher conditions that so far have turned up only in the forecasts. But sooner or later, the putts will start dropping - and along with them, the names above Woods on the leaderboard.

The eight golfers who began the weekend still looking down at Woods, the seven parked alongside, and the 67 down below already regard Woods the way they do a force of nature. He is as fearsome as the crack of thunder and relentless as the rain that follows it, steady enough to make Chinese water torture seem like a mercifully brief alternate form of punishment.

Shigeki Maruyama, the only Japanese golfer ever to win two PGA Tour events, played with Woods during the first two rounds alongside the North Sea and beat him straight up both days.

"But golf is a four-day sport," Maruyama quickly pointed out at the close of play Friday, "so in the end, I'm sure he'll be on top of me."

After day one, someone asked Maruyama what he and Woods talked about. After some giggling, Maruyama inhaled deeply, let the air out dramatically and explained through an interpreter that, "all he did throughout the day was sigh."

Asked about day two, Maruyama skipped the translation and went straight to the pantomime. He clenched his teeth and began grunting.

Woods had plenty of reason to do both.

"I feel very comfortable," he said. "The thing I take away from the first two days is that I kept myself out of danger."

Just as in Thursday's opening round, Woods needed only one spectacular par save - draining an 18-foot putt after hashing a sand wedge from waist-high heather from the left rough on No. 10 - and shot 68 after missing three putts inside 10 feet. A day earlier, he shot 70 after missing six of seven for birdies inside 18 feet.

By Woods' count, a half-dozen putts lipped out on the first day and half that many on the second. Witnesses put the figure closer to a half-dozen total. But like we said before, it hardly matters.

Despite two days of decent weather and missed putts, the cushion between Woods and the fivesome in the lead headlined by Maruyama and Ernie Els is still just two shots. The quintet represents the biggest logjam at the halfway point of a major in 30 years, but that hardly matters, either.

Colin Montgomerie, Scotland's best chance to keep the claret jug on these shores, shot 74 in the opening round in near-perfect weather and looked almost certain to miss the cut. Instead, he went out in a steady drizzle on the morning of day two and carved an improbable 64 from Muirfield's unyielding links.

Searching for an explanation, Montgomerie said, "Sometimes, when you think you should do something, it doesn't happen.

"We're all expecting Tiger Woods to go out in benign conditions and shoot 66. It doesn't always happen. That's why we're all here," he said, mustering some courage. "If it was a cut-and-dried decision, we would all go home."

Some of them already have. Those left behind are already playing for second place.

"If Tiger gets hot, he might do what I did today," said Els, who shot 29 on the front before scuffling in with 37 on the back. "Who knows?"

In truth, just about everyone does.

To paraphrase what Tom Weiskopf once said about Jack Nicklaus, Woods knows it's over, his opponents know it's over and he knows that they know it's over.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org