DORAL, Fla. – Tiger Woods, despite driving into a tree and bogeying the penultimate hole, leads the WGC-Cadillac Championship by four strokes. That means all pursuers are rooting for a Sunday hurricane or the kind of high wind that can scramble a leaderboard in a hurry.
Let it blow to the point all hell could break lose, the chasers’ refrain goes.
There’s something else they need besides the significant air current, which is in the forecast for Sunday, and their own superb play. They need a bucked trend.
It’s been something of a foregone conclusion over the years that when Woods has the 54-hole lead he just doesn’t lose. He’s 50-4 when leading or tied at the top after three rounds on the PGA Tour, and he’s 16-0 when up by at least four shots.
In other words, everybody else is going up mountain, upstream, up headwind and maybe up a creek without a paddle.
“He’s going to be a tough guy to catch,” said Graeme McDowell, who did overcome a four-shot deficit against Woods in the unofficial, short-field Chevron World Challenge in 2010. “But according to the forecast, we are going to have strong winds. I think that’s an advantage to the rest of the field. With the tough conditions, hopefully we’ll have a chance.”
The way Woods is performing, hope might not be enough. He made seven birdies Saturday and now has a personal-best 24 for three rounds (twice before he had 22). Accurate approach shots, particularly with short irons, and terrific putting are the reasons. He’s taken but 74 putts, his lowest ever for 54 holes, and leads the field in strokes gained-putting.
“I’m excited about the way I’m playing,” said Woods, at 18-under-par 198 (66-65-67), and four up on weekend playing competitor McDowell and five ahead of Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker. “I’m hitting the ball well and making putts.”
In other words, his game doesn’t appear to have any cracks at the moment, besides perhaps the odd off-line drive. What’s more, Doral’s Blue Monster is one of his comfortable playgrounds, given three previous victories here.
Now the question is what effect the wind will have on Sunday’s proceedings. To hear Woods, it won’t be a negative for him.
“I’ve won a few tournaments in the wind,” Woods, a winner of 75 Tour titles, including 14 major championships, said with a smile. “I think if you’re coming from behind, it’s always nice to have tougher conditions. But also when you’ve got the lead, it’s nice to have tougher conditions and you can make a bunch of pars.”
At one point late in the third round, it appeared as if Mickelson might get into Sunday’s final group with Woods. But then McDowell reversed a skid of a few holes. He assured himself of another Woods pairing when he chipped in for eagle at No. 16 and two-putted for par at No. 18 from 85 feet.
Mickelson, who felt he threw away five to six shots around the greens in a Saturday 69, was highly motivated to get in Woods’ group – and with good reason. Before 2007, Woods had a 10-5-3 record against Mickelson when paired in the same group. Since, Lefty leads 8-5-1 head-to-head and in final rounds is 5-0 with a 19-stroke advantage.
So Mickelson, who will go out with Stricker for the fourth consecutive day, tried to put a positive spin on playing in the group in front.
“This might be a blessing, because I think that there have been so many times, here at Doral especially, where the winner has come from the group one or two in front of the leaders,” said Mickelson, tied for first in greens in regulation with McDowell and Charl Schwartzel (T-5). “And if we can get off to a hot start, it’s tough to follow suit. It’s tough when you have to make birdies. It’s not as hard to make them first. So if we can get hot, you never know.”
Mickelson maintains one can shoot in the mid-60s “fairly easily” and “make a lot of birdies,” even in tough conditions.
If Woods wins Sunday, he will have five victories in his last 18 Tour stroke-play events. That’s the kind of percentage he had back before his 30-month victory drought began in late 2009.
The reasons behind his rise are health, an improved short game and a swing that is now second nature after 2 1/2 years of working with instructor Sean Foley.
Asked if his swing can get as good as it once was, Woods said, “I don’t want it to be as good. That was never the intention. I want it to be better.”
Woods birdied the first three holes and half of the first 10, three on tap-ins. As McDowell observed, “Tiger didn’t look like he was going to do anything wrong.”
McDowell himself had two eagles in a round for the first time on Tour and said he couldn’t have played better on the first 10 holes. But putting let him down. He missed an 11-foot birdie putt for the sole lead at No. 7, then found himself three behind after 11 thanks to his three-putt par and Woods’ 6-foot birdie at No. 10, and McDowell’s bogey at No. 11.
All told, McDowell missed 10 putts from 16 feet or less.
“I was just trying to force the ball into the hole and just couldn’t make a putt,” McDowell said.
The same couldn’t be said for Woods. Even after driving into a tree and bogeying No. 17, he was unfazed. He rebounded with an 18-foot birdie at No. 18.
“True Tiger fashion,” McDowell said.
You can expect that in some form Sunday. At the very least, he’ll have his usual red shirt on.