GULLANE, Scotland — Lee Westwood has contended enough in the majors that he can identify important moments, even if he could barely see his ball.
He had a one-shot lead over Tiger Woods, standing in grass up to his knees in the dunes left of the par-3 16th hole. It was one of the few bad shots Westwood hit Saturday at the British Open at Muirfield, and by far his worst predicament. Westwood slashed at the ball and it didn’t reach the green. He used a putter to belt his next shot uphill to 12 feet.
What followed was a finish that allowed him to believe he was closer than ever to ending his 20-year pursuit of a major.
Westwood poured in the putt to salvage bogey. He picked up two shots on Woods with a birdie on the next hole. He closed with a solid par, giving him a two-shot lead going into the final round, and most significant Sunday of his career.
‘‘That was probably the biggest momentum thing I did all day — walk off there with a bogey,’’ Westwood said. ‘‘That’s what’s been missing, making those putts. And back it up with a birdie at the next. Those are the sort of things you need to do.’’
Had he made putts like that, Westwood might not have missed the playoff at the US Open that Woods won in 2008 at Torrey Pines. Or the playoff at Turnberry in 2009. He might even have been able to hold off Phil Mickelson at the Masters in 2010.
Westwood is widely considered the best player of his generation without a major. Maybe that’s about to change.
The 40-year-old from England passed one big test when he outplayed Woods on another tough day at Muirfield for a 1-under 70 and grabbed a two-shot lead over Woods and Hunter Mahan, the only players still under par.
‘‘Even though I haven’t won a major, I know what it takes to win one,’’ said Westwood, who was at 3-under 210. ‘‘It’s just a case of going out there tomorrow and having the confidence in my game, which I've got. And putting it to the test.’’
Sunday figures to be the toughest test.
Despite his late blunder by hitting into a bunker and making bogey on the par-5 17th, Woods held it together for a 72. Mahan matched the best score of the third round with a 68 and will play in the final group for the second straight major.
‘‘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.’’
Westwood is the 54-hole leader for the second time in his career. He’ll try to become only the eighth player dating to 1861 to capture his first major in his 40s. He was hopeful the other close calls will serve him well, though he didn’t seem all that uptight about it.
‘‘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.’’
He was plenty good on another warm, sunny afternoon on a course that was noticeably softer but no less demanding.
Woods lost his chance to get in the final group with one swing.
Tied with Westwood as they played the 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 never has won a major when trailing going into the last day, the outlook didn’t look bleak from his vantage point.
‘‘I'm only two back,’’ Woods said. ‘‘There’s only one guy ahead of me.’’
Instead of playing with Westwood in the final group, Woods will be in the penultimate group with Masters champ 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.