MELBOURNE, Australia – Tiger Woods opened with two birdies, saved his round with two pars and wound up with a 4-under 68 on Friday to build a three-shot lead going into the weekend of the Australian Masters.
It was the fourth straight tournament in which Woods has had the 36-hole lead, although his only victory during that stretch came at the BMW Championship outside Chicago in September. He lost the last two times, including last week in Shanghai at the HSBC Champions.
Woods was at 10-under 134, three shots clear of an American – Jason Dufner – and a pair of Australians in Greg Chalmers and James Nitties, both of whom dropped shots on the 17th hole that cost them a spot in the final group Saturday with Woods.
Before another enthusiastic crowd that topped 24,000 people who endured hot sunshine and dust from so much traffic along sandy paths at Kingston Heath, Woods quickly regained the lead from Dufner, who shot his 67 in the morning to finish at 7-under 137.
Woods putted up the slope onto the green for a 3-foot birdie on the par-5 first, then changed clubs three times in the shifting wind before stuffing his approach to 2 feet on the second.
Woods lost his swing late in the round, twice slamming his driver into the ground as one shot sailed to the left and another to the right, and he also missed birdie putts of 10 feet on the 15th and 6 feet on the 16th that could have expanded his lead.
What saved him were two pars.
He chipped 15 feet past the flag on the ninth and made the putt coming back, then escaped more trouble on the par-5 14th, which played into the wind. Woods reached the green with a 3-iron on Thursday. This time, he had to hook a 3-wood around a gum tree on the left side of the fairway, and it clipped a branch and tumbled into a bunker, leaving him a 60-yard shot.
He did well to get onto the green, left his 40-foot birdie putt some 10 feet short, and made that for par.
“I didn’t do anything great,” Woods said. “But I had two big par putts to keep the round going.”
Nitties played behind Woods and his mammoth galleries for the second straight day and did well to keep pace until dropping a shot on the 17th. He wound up with a 71.
That left Chalmers alone in second, until he got a bad break on the 17th. There was a large tuft of grass behind his ball in the right rough, keeping him from hitting through the ball and toward the green. Instead, he tried to play a 40-yard hook to give himself a full, predictable swing, missed the green and chipped poorly to make bogey.
“I was a little disappointed with the bogey at 17 for one reason: I knew,” Chalmers said about the possibilty of being paired with Tiger. “To play with him at any time is always a pleasure. It would have been nice in Australia to have a game with Tiger.”
Instead, it will be an All-American final group for the second week in a row outside the United States. Last week, it was Woods and Nick Watney in China.
Dufner, playing before a decent-sized crowd in the group with Adam Scott, reached 9 under in the easier morning conditions until playing his last five holes in 2 over.
Dufner has been Down Under while playing Nationwide Tour events. Now, the American is on a tour of this part of the world, having qualified for the World Golf Championship in China, and heading to the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan.
The idea was to knock some rust off. There didn’t appear to be too much at Kingston Heath.
“I could have stayed at home and played in the States, but that’s kind of the same old thing,” Dufner said. “I play enough events over there. I thought it would be a good choice to come over here and kind of broaden my golf experience, and it happens to be a real good event now that Tiger is playing.”
Even better is being in the final group with him.
Chalmers hasn’t won in Australia in a decade, part of that because he’s had to play so much on the PGA Tour – or in Q-School – to keep his card in the United States. He wrapped that up early this year – Chalmers is No. 86 on the money list – and told his caddie this summer how much he’d love to win at home.
And he still feels he has a good chance, although Chalmers knows he’ll have to play solid golf. He was asked if he thought he could still win, even with the world’s No. 1 player holding a three-shot lead.
“As a professional, you have to believe,” Chalmers said. “Otherwise, you might as well throw the sticks in the bin. At the same time, it’s a tall order. No one know how to win better from 36 holes.”
Manny Villegas, the younger brother of Camilo Villegas, had a 68 and joined Mathew Goggin in the group at 6-under 138. Stuart Appleby, who lost his PGA Tour card this year for the first time since his rookie season some 15 years ago, had a 70 and was another shot back.