There’s a certain irony in Tiger Woods being both golf’s greatest attraction and the player most masterful at sucking the drama out of an event with his brilliance. Which is exactly what Woods did Saturday at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship.
Woods’ 5-under-par 67, putting him at 18-under 198, turned a two-man race into a runaway across the TPC Blue Monster at Trump Doral Golf Club and Resort. His four-shot lead on Graeme McDowell (14-under 202) ties the Doral record for largest 54-hole lead and is two strokes larger than any 54-hole lead he has lost. Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker will take up the chase from five back at 13-under 203.
Woods’ cloak of Sunday invincibility might be a decade dusty, but he set a 54-hole personal best with 24 birdies, seven of which came Saturday. His previous best? Twenty-two twice, once in 2005 at Doral, the first of his three consecutive wins here.
After three bogeys in the first 18 holes, Woods bogeyed only three holes in the next 36. And one of those counts as the kind of Warner Bros. cartoon bad luck that seems to defy physics (we’ll get to that later).
“I’m pleased at how clean the cards have been this week,” Woods said. “This golf course was pretty gentle the first few days. Guys were making a bunch of birdies out here. I wasn’t the only one. But I obviously made a few mistakes here and there.”
Here’s what might dishearten the field: McDowell played near perfect golf the first 10 holes Saturday and but for an eagle and a tree, he would be six or seven behind going into Sunday.
McDowell provided the eagle, a chip-and-roll out of the rough behind the green on the par-4 16th. That propelled him to 14-under, leapfrogging both Stricker and Mickelson. Then, Woods tee shot on the par-4 No. 17 somehow landed in a palm tree just perfectly that it wouldn’t come down.
He said he knew he had treed his tee shot when, “Galleries, media, officials, markers, everybody was just pointing up in the tree. And it got to a point where I was probably about, maybe 60 yards away, and I could see the ball in the tree, identified with binoculars and saw my line on the ball. I took a drop and, unfortunately, it wasn’t the lie I needed to play the shot. I hit a hell of a shot just to keep it on the green.”
Woods bogeyed that hole while McDowell had yet another tap-in par. He had too many of those on the day to keep pace with Woods. McDowell closed with a tap-in par on No. 18, but that didn’t come tinged with disappointment. It followed a brave try at an 85-foot birdie putt that, as Woods said, could have wound up off the green if McDowell hadn’t been so precise.
Then Woods drained a 16-footer for birdie to restore his four-shot lead.
“I piped a tee shot down there, hit a little 9-iron there and was able to pour that putt in there,” Woods said.
“I played as good as I could the first 10 holes,” McDowell said. “I left a lot of putts out there, though. I made some nice ones, and I missed some makeable ones. And Tiger played fantastic.”
The day began with McDowell making eagle on No. 1 while Woods birdied it, starting their separation from the rest of the field. Woods birdied the first three holes to take a two-shot lead to the par-3 fourth hole. He saved par with a 19-foot putt that brought a vintage Woods’ fist punch that would have knocked down Anderson Silva the way he knocked down the putt.
“I probably would’ve missed that putt if I hadn’t seen G-Mac’s,” Woods said. “The grain is coming off the right, but the wind is coming off the left. I could see his putt get hung up by the wind a little bit, and it just didn’t break. It just didn’t move through probably the last six, eight feet. I adjusted my read, moved it down a little bit and thought the wind might hold it. I hit the putt and the wind held it perfectly.”
Woods bogeyed No. 5 and McDowell birdied No. 6 to even things at 15-under. Meanwhile, the rest of the field, led at that moment by Charl Schwartzel, sat at 12-under.
Separation in the lead twosome came quickly. Woods birdied the par-5 eighth after sticking his approach from 121 yards to inside three feet. That one shot-lead became two when Woods birdied the par-5 10th and McDowell lipped out his birdie putt after reaching the green in two.
After that, McDowell said he “lost my way a little bit for four or five holes,” allowing Woods to build the lead McDowell finally cut into on No. 16.
McDowell expressed hope more blustery conditions Sunday might make Woods accessible. That’s where the rest of the field is going into Sunday —hoping for help from Mother Nature.
“If you’re coming from behind, it’s always nice to have tougher conditions,” Woods said. “But also, when you’ve got the nice lead, it’s nice to have tougher conditions and you can make a bunch of pars. We’ll see how this golf course is playing [Sunday]. We’ll see how much water they put on it and how fiery it is.”