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.