The distractions challenging professional golfers at Doral might fairly be characterized as somewhat unusual. I have in mind jet engines, a bull languidly munching Bermuda grass on a fairway and, of course, gunfire.
That the Blue Monster course is under the flight pattern of nearby Miami International Airport isn’t so bad; one absorbs the occasional roar of engines on a backswing as part of the soundtrack. The bull and cow loose on the 13th fairway was an oddity limited to Friday before Department of Agriculture officials rounded up the interlopers. Gunfire? Worry not, visitors! The distinctive popping sound you hear is coming from a nearby police shooting range (we hope).
In any case, keeping one’s concentration amid jets, bulls and gunshots can only help a man prepare for the unique experience of being paired with Tiger Woods.
Graeme McDowell found out the loud way Saturday.
Woods-McDowell will be the final pair out again Sunday as the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship wraps up on Doral’s Blue Monster.
Woods’ 18-under par score through three rounds leads McDowell by four strokes. I won’t say the conclusion seems forgone, but Woods with a four-shot lead entering a Sunday — he has never lost such a lead — is something like Usain Bolt with a big head start and a tailwind.
That tailwind, for Tiger, is the loyal pilgrimage of fans that pushes him and gives his opponent something else to think about.
“Tiger brings his own little interesting circus,” as McDowell put it quite neatly.
Those little “quiet, please” signs they hold up at golf tournaments are like sand castles against the tide when Woods is in an event and atop a leaderboard. The gallery following him swells. It is excited. (“Tiger looked at me!”) No matter that his most recent major was the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods remains golf’s rock star.
He is LeBron James, except that Tiger was LeBron before LeBron.
And a win at Doral would put Woods closer to overtaking Rory McIlroy and regain the world’s No. 1 ranking.
When Tiger is playing like this — 66-65-67 — and his fans are making themselves known all over the place, the combination feels unbeatable.
I almost felt bad for McDowell on the 12th tee box. Tiger had birdied the 10th hole to pick up a stroke and then gained another on the 11th when McDowell lipped a putt from seven feet.
Tiger’s army smelled blood. McDowell prepared to tee off on the 12th but the “ quiet, please” signs were powerless.
McDowell’s caddie, Ken Comboy from Northern Ireland, like his player, interjected, saying, “Be still please. Thank you!”
It would be one of several times Sunday he would say that.
“Tiger is an incredible guy to play with,” McDowell emphasized. “Very supporting, always complimentary. It’s more the environment that he attracts inside and outside the ropes. Everything is a little louder. A little busier.”
He admitted he had spent some of Saturday “struggling to get my focus back a little bit.”
Woods’ lead and the crowd noise swelled when he birdied the par-3 15the hole for a dominant six-shot lead, but then things got interesting. It was as if the golf gods were trying to make Sunday a little more interesting and add a touch of drama.
So McDowell eagled the 16th to pick up two strokes, and gained another stroke on the 17th when Woods bogeyed after his tee shot somehow ended up atop a tall sable palm, necessitating a penalty drop.
And there was the proof for anyone who doubted it: As great as Woods is, he does not control gravity.
Woods recovered for a birdie on the 18th hole, rolling in an 18-foot putt as the throng ringing the green swooned and Tiger upper-cut his right fist — his trademark exclamation.
(On his approach shot on that final hole, a young boy with bad parents was heard from a distance shouting to Tiger, “Put it in the water!” Instead, Tiger elected to put it on the green to a buoyant ovation.)
Woods versus McDowell had some of the feel of a mini, two-man Ryder Cup duel, U.S. versus. Europe. “A good battle,” Woods called it.
Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker enter Sunday tied for third, only one shot behind McDowell. But the question is who if anyone can catch Tiger when he is playing this well. It’s sort of a rhetorical question.
Woods knows the critics and doubters and historians won’t credit his comeback as real until his numbers of majors moves off that number 14 on which it has been stuck. Only then, to many, will he be fully recovered from the infidelity scandal that rocked his personal life and seemed to derail his career.
Short of that elusive next major, though, Woods is showing every sign of playing back into form. He won four times on the PGA Tour in 2012. Doral would be his second title already in 2013, and a WGC championship probably is next-best to a major.
Woods’ numbers through 54 holes for most birdies and fewest putts are remarkable even for him.
“I’m finally healthy,” he said.
This sport and its fans always have wondered if Woods, at 37 now, ever will see his golf game as good as it once was.
Doral has put him in a mood to answer.
“Well, I don’t want it to be as good. That was never the intent,” he said. “I want it to be better.”
That doesn’t sound like an advisory to the rest of the PGA Tour as much as it sounds like a warning.