Rust factor keeps Woods off the straight and narrow

Ponte Vedra Beach: Tournament rust again cost Tiger Woods dear at the Players Championship on Saturday as he struggled off the tee and ended the third round a distant 10 strokes off the lead.

Playing only his third event since his private life unravelled last year amid allegations of marital infidelities, the world number one failed to build any momentum and limped into the clubhouse with a bogey-bogey finish.

Woods could be overtaken at the top of the rankings if he finishes outside the top five this week and long-time rival and compatriot Phil Mickelson comes from five shots back to triumph on Sunday, a possibility he was reminded about by a youngster.

As Woods emerged from the scorer`s hut at the TPC Sawgrass, a young boy aged around eight was waiting in line to get an autograph from crowd favourite Mickelson.

"Say so long to number one, Tiger," the boy called out. "Kiss it goodbye."

Mickelson, ever diplomatic, immediately responded by saying to the youngster: "Hey, be polite."

While Mickelson faces an uphill task to become world number one for the first time with fourth-ranked Briton Lee Westwood in the lead going into the final round, Woods`s struggles are by no means over.

He found only six of 14 fairways off the tee on Saturday on the way to a second successive one-under-par 71 and looked more like a journeyman on the course instead of arguably the best player of all time.

"I need a lot of help," the 14-times major winner added, referring to Sunday`s final round. "But it doesn`t look like that`s probably going to be the case. There are too many guys out there (ahead of me)."

"When you have the lead in the tournament, it`s great. You can afford to make mistakes. You can make bogeys and still win the golf tournament. But when you`re trailing, you can`t afford to make any bogeys."

Woods began the day nine shots off the lead and ended it 10 adrift, but he felt his overall game had improved since he missed the cut for only the sixth time as a professional at last week`s Quail Hollow Championship.

"I hit more good shots today than I have all week," the 34-year-old said after posting a four-under total of 212. "You don`t turn this thing around overnight and then just go out there and play great golf."

"This is a process ... I just need more rounds. Luckily I`ve got two rounds here on the weekend. But I`m very pleased so far what I`ve changed this week and how I`ve progressed this week."

Bureau Report