Golf

Tiger's play gives pursuers hope

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CHASKA, Minn.

So the late innings of the 91st PGA Championship at Hazeltine have arrived, and once again, Mariano Rivera has the baseball. We all know how that turns out, don't we? Or do we? Strange as this may sound — deep breath, everyone — Tiger Woods may not quite be the lock we all believe he is. Sure, he's a heavy favorite, but despite his words late Saturday — that his card was "clean" — Woods could not have been very pleased with his performance down the stretch at Hazeltine National. A third-round 71, even considering the wind, unearthed some flaws and accomplished little more than keeping Padraig Harrington and Y.E. Yang at arm's length. His chip-in birdie at 14 was highlight-reel material, a belly-wedge from the fringe rattling into the jar, but what preceded it was a poor chip he gunned through the green. At 15, he hit a dismal wedge to the green; he yanked an approach at 16; and he looked like a one-armed paper hanger holding onto the club with another poor shot into the par-3 17th. Given his powers of recovery — a three-putt bogey at the fourth serving as the only blemish — Woods knows he got away with one. While Thursday's 67 was an absolute breeze, Saturday's 71 was a 9-to-5 shift moving crates on the loading dock. And when an 8-foot birdie putt slid past the cup at the final hole, it made five straight holes of sheer Uncharacteristic Tiger.
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Of course, any other pro makes it to the house on a challenging, windswept day like that in 75 shots. Woods shoots 71 and maintains his lead. That's what makes him great. He stands at 8-under 208 through three rounds. But is he uncatchable? Untouchable? Well, the numbers say he is: 14-0 at the majors when leading after 54 holes, 47-3 overall in his PGA Tour career. Those are Rivera-like closer numbers. According to an internet report, Ireland's largest bookmaker, Paddy Power, believed Woods to be such a lock BEFORE he even teed off Saturday that it agreed to pay off all those punters holding Woods win tickets two days early, so that they could "get their cash now and enjoy the rest of the weekend on us!" Gee, thanks. The pricetag: More than $2 million. Nice gesture, or a Paddy blunder? History says no, but there was a different vibe in the hazy, thick Hazeltine air late on Saturday as others finally began to make themselves heard. Woods actually appeared to be far more of a sure thing on Thursday than he did Saturday, strange as it would seem, given he is hovering so close to the finish line. "It's not a runaway deal," said Ernie Els, who got to 6 under with three to play, only to finish bogey-bogey-bogey — the type of thing challengers to Woods simply cannot afford to do. "It looked like a runaway at the end of yesterday," added Els. "But it looks like the guys are really set to give Tiger a go, and the crowd could sense that." The frenzied galleries at Hazeltine have been nothing short of amazing, standing 20-deep in some sections of the golf course just to get a passing glimpse of The Chosen One. But they are supportive of the other players, too, as Padraig Harrington finally discovered after spreading his wings two groups ahead after three consecutive rounds in the tall shadow of Woods. "I get the impression that there's a lot of people who are cheering me on, wanting me to push him along," said Harrington with a smile, "but they still want Tiger to win. You know, they would like the idea of, let's support the underdog until he catches up, and then we'll support Tiger again sort of thing." Saturday, several players stepped up to challenge. With Woods (two birdies) loitering at 7 under through most of the day, Els pushed his way to 6; Harrington played much more solidly than he had a day earlier; U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover got within two shots as he headed to the back nine; Soren Kjeldsen got to 5 under; and Yang jumped past everyone with a three-birdie stretch beginning at the driveable, par-4 14th hole. Vijay Singh would have hung around, too, had he not had a jackhammer in his hands, missing too many short putts to count. The leader took notice. "It's fun to go out there and test what you have, and other guys are throwing it at you and hopefully I can throw it back at them," said Woods. "It's fun." Yang, who at 37 became a winner on the PGA Tour earlier this year at the Honda Classic, came from behind to take down Woods at the HSBC Champions in China two years ago and has been in good form since tying for 22nd at Woods' own AT&T National early last month. Harrington has been there neck-and-neck with Woods as recently as last Sunday in Akron, where he gave up the lead to Woods, regained it, then watched it wash away with one poor flop shot on the 16th hole. Players champion Henrik Stenson and Glover, both lurking at 4 under, and Els (3 under) are all capable enough to go low at Hazeltine and take advantage should Woods leave the door ajar. One must admit, all of a sudden, there do seem to be some enticing possibilities. Wire-to-wire, 54-hole leaders Tom Watson (1978, Oakmont) and Greg Norman (1986, Inverness) can tell you that funny things can happen on Sundays at the PGA. Watson was beaten by John Mahaffey, Norman by Bob Tway. If Woods were to get clipped, it would be far stranger than that. It would be akin to wrestling the lead off Rivera deep into the ninth. Can it happen? History says no. Reality says highly unlikely. But in this game, one never does know. At the 91st PGA at Hazeltine, unless you're lucky enough to be holding a betting slip bought at Paddy Power, there are no sure things.

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