Lee Westwood is 18 holes away from finally putting a major trophy on his mantlepiece, but The Open climax on Muirfield’s dusty fairways may be the longest round of his life.
The 40-year-old Briton, who has knocked on the major door so many times only to have it slammed in his face, emerged from a gripping third-round scrap with world No. 1 Tiger Woods with a two-stroke lead on three-under.
Westwood, trying to win one of golf’s big prizes at the 62nd time of asking, held a three-shot lead after seven holes, saw it evaporate before his eyes and then produced a gutsy finish to pull clear of the chasing pack with a one-under 70.
Woods, who has been stuck on 14 major titles for five frustrating and difficult years, looked like he may seize control at certain times on Saturday, only to falter to a 72.
With the sun-scorched fairways, waist-high rough and zippy greens still proving a brutal test for mind and body, only three players remained under-par compared with nine at the start of an absorbing third round.
As several contenders saw their hopes choked in the long grass, American Hunter Mahan, who famously cried when he duffed a crucial chip in the 2010 Ryder Cup, put together a joint best of the day, 68, to join Woods on one-under.
Westwood was to partner Mahan in the last match yesterday and believed he could handle the pressure.
“Even though I haven’t won a major, I know what it takes to win one,” said Westwood, who is trying to emulate fellow Briton Justin Rose, this year’s US Open champion. “It’s a case of going out there tomorrow, having confidence in my game, which I’ve got, and putting it to the test.”
US Masters champion Adam Scott is fourth on level-par after the Australian carded a 70 and he was to partner Woods in the penultimate group on what was shaping up to be a nail-biting shootout alongside the Firth of Forth.
Only six shots separate the top 17, which includes the likes of Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera, Sergio Garcia, Jason Day, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Zach Johnson.
Jimenez, distinctive with his frizzy hair and blue tartan trousers, was the overnight leader, but a 77 left the Spaniard back in the pack on three-over.
Westwood and Woods slugged it out from their opening tee shots, their engrossing duel ebbing and flowing over the bumps and hollows of a sun-kissed course, which stubbornly refused to loosen its vice-like grip on the field.
With Jimenez faltering, Woods was the first to make his move, rattling in a birdie at the second to move into the lead, only to fritter it away at the par-three fourth.
Westwood bogeyed the third, but responded in magnificent fashion on the 559-yard fifth, blasting two drivers to reach the green in two and then curling in a 25-foot eagle putt to a crescendo of roars echoing across the parched course.
Woods failed with a birdie attempt to leave Westwood one clear on three-under, and he stretched his lead to three when he birdied the seventh and Woods bogeyed.
Just as he appeared to have taken a stranglehold, Westwood faltered and the American scented blood. At the par-four eighth, the Englishman’s putter failed him as he made a bogey.
His lead did not even last until halfway as the world No. 12 found a bunker off the tee at the par-five ninth and he ended up squirting an eight-foot par putt wide.
Woods pounced, flopping out exquisitely from a greenside bunker and converting his birdie chance at the same hole.
They parred the next four holes as the tension mounted, but Westwood edged back in front on the 14th when a sensational second shot left him with a four-footer for birdie.
All his hard work seemed to be unraveling at the par-three 16th when his tee shot found deep rough and his hack out dribbled back down a slope, while Woods prowled the green eyeing a makeable birdie putt.
Woods’s effort finished agonizingly short and an ice-cool Westwood drilled in a long bogey putt that produced a roar as loud as if it were a birdie.
Pumped-up by his escape, Westwood launched a huge drive down the 17th and Woods panicked, sending his second shot into a bunker — a terrible miscalculation that resulted in a bogey six.
“If I hit it flat and flush, it’s fine, it carries, but I spun it and you spin it against that wind, it’s not going to go very far,” Woods said of the momentum-shifting moment.
Westwood sank his birdie putt to pull two clear and both parred the 18th.
The duo were put on the clock by the Royal and Ancient organizers, who punished Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama with a one-stroke penalty after he took too long on the 17th hole.
Matsuyama had birdied the ninth, 10th and 11th to move to one-under, but eventually slipped back to three-over.
Mickelson’s dream of a first Open title looked realistic as he got himself under-par, but three bogeys in his last six holes left him five shots behind Westwood and one ahead of Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who made hay early on with a 68.