GULLANE, Scotland — Sunday at the British Open could bring one of the great three-way matchups in golf history: Tiger Woods versus British favorite son Lee Westwood versus a nightmare named Muirfield.
Westwood smiled his way around the rough and sharp edges of Muirfield for a 70 and a three-under-par 210 total that puts him two shots ahead of Woods and Hunter Mahan.
Those three are the only ones that Muirfield has allowed to break par through three rounds. Masters champion Adam Scott is next at even par, followed by four at one over, including the irrepressible Zach Johnson, and two at two over, including the often magical and ever unpredictable Phil Mickelson.
The 40-year-old Westwood has been a perennial contender in majors, finishing second or third a staggering seven times.
Westwood and Woods won’t even be paired together Sunday. The Briton will go last with Mahan, and Woods will precede that grouping in a twosome with Scott, the player who hired Woods’ longtime caddy, Steve Williams, after Woods fired him.
The victory could go to any of 20 different players. Mahan and Scott are clearly in great position to be main actors in the big play. But the day will focus, at least as it begins, on the story lines of Woods and Westwood.
Woods has won 14 major tournaments, but none since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. His struggles to get back in form, and on track again in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major titles, has been one of the larger ongoing stories in sports in the last four years.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge of it,” he said after his round of one-over 72. “I’ve been in this position before, in the past five years . . . and I’m in it again.”
In the world of sports perception, these are big stakes for the controversial Woods. If he wins, many people will proclaim, joyously, that he is back. If he fails to win, many people will proclaim, joyously, that this failure shows he never will be.
There could hardly be a more qualified or interesting foil for Woods in this drama.
Westwood, once No. 1 in the world rankings, just turned 40 in April, is three years older than longtime and current No. 1 Woods, and has played in 61 majors without winning one, though he has had 15 top-10 finishes and 10 in the top five. In 2010, he was second in both the Masters and the British Open.
To most, that 0-61 would be the ultimate monkey on your back. To Westwood, a laid-back, witty Brit, it is not. Or so he claims.
“It’s not the end of the world” if he doesn’t win, he said Saturday.
He also said that he has won 40 times worldwide, meaning he knows how to do this, and said that the obvious pressures involved here affect him less than most might think.
“I don’t live my life from outside in,” he said. “I don’t live it and run it according to what other people think. I live it the other way around. I have my own ideas and my own dreams and plans.”
On a golf course that is as flexible and giving to players as a steel beam, Westwood actually got a lead up to three shots with a long eagle putt on the par-five fifth hole.
The shot rattled in and Westwood was asked if he intended it to go in at that pace.
“I intended for it to go in,” he said, with his usual dry wit. “I was aiming at the hole.”
But two holes later, he was back in a tie with Woods, who birdied No. 9 on top of a Westwood bogey.
Woods had a shot at ending the day one back, but left a 20-footer for birdie short on No. 18.
Mahan, veteran tour player and 2010 U.S. Ryder Cup team member, shot 68 and shared best score of the day with Sergio Garcia and Richard Sterne. Scott’s one-under 70 was a model of consistency. He started at one over par and made two bogeys and three birdies for his 70 and 213.
Woods did a quick hit-and-run interview with the media. Westwood stuck around longer, and didn’t duck questions of expectations about the frenzy in Britain, where the thinking is that the Andy-Murray-winning-at-Wimbledon karma will certainly work for Westwood.
“I’ll think about winning the Open tonight, at some stage,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with that, picturing yourself holding the Claret Jug at the final tee and seeing your name at the top of the leaderboard.”
Woods has held that trophy three times, and his mind’s picture will, undoubtedly, be similar. Same for Mahan, Scott and a handful of others.
In the end, Muirfield, that minefield of golf agony, will decide.