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Tiger looking like old self at Doral
The day before the clocks go forward, Tiger Woods wound them back.
For the third straight round on the Trump Doral Blue Monster, he played like it was 2000 again.
After an impressive Saturday 67 stretched Woods’ midway two-shot lead at the WGC-Cadillac Championship to four shots, I asked him if he felt his game now was as good as it was in the glory years.
“I don’t want it to be as good,” he said. “That was never the intent.”
It wasn’t hard to divine what he’d say next — that he wants to be better than he ever was.
“Exactly,” he said.
That might be a tall order, given he rewrote record books and won seven of 11 majors in that stretch, but he’s certainly looking as dominant as he has in years.
Through three rounds here, Woods has made a jaw-dropping 24 birdies — at one point on Saturday, he’d carded 19 birdies in 38 holes — and needed just 74 putts, both personal records in his PGA Tour career.
Bullseye putting, of course, never hurts, but it hasn’t just been the flatstick that has Woods poised for win number 76 of his PGA Tour career and the first win in a WGC event since 2009.
His driving’s been good, but it’s his iron play that has really impressed.
He’s seventh in the field in greens hit in regulation and third in proximity to the hole.
“He controlled every part of his game very well,” said Graeme McDowell, who played alongside Woods and will again in the final round.
“Very few loose shots. All respect to the way he handled himself today and the way he played. He’s going to be a tough guy to catch.”
McDowell started Saturday on fire, draining a long eagle putt on the first, then watching Woods miss from half the distance, having to settle for birdie.
Woods made birdies on the next two, but after an untidy bogey on the fifth — he misjudged a 9-iron approach — McDowell had drawn even.
Woods got his lead back with a birdie on the par-5 8th — crafted the old-fashioned way, with a wedge approach — but he had McDowell’s cold putter to thank.
“I played as good as I could the first 10 holes, but I left a lot of putts out there,” McDowell said.
If there was a turning point in their duel, it came on the par-5 10th.
Woods took 5-wood off the tee and bailed out to the right, not wanting to go near the water on the left. He was forced to lay up while McDowell played two beautiful fairway woods onto the green.
But Woods wedged close and made birdie and the Northern Irishman three-putted for par.
“It kind of rattled me a little bit,” said McDowell.
“Because Tiger didn’t look like he was going to do anything wrong, I really felt like I needed to be making putts like that.”
McDowell would then make bogey on the straightforward 11th, and catastrophically double bogey on the 14th despite being pin-high in the rough in two shots.
When Woods made birdie at the treacherous par-3 15th — he needed a moon ball to get his ball to stop near that pin — his lead went to six shots.
But McDowell’s nothing if not feisty and hit back with a chip-in eagle on the par-4 16th, then cut the deficit to three after Woods caught a bad break and had his tee shot on 17 stick in a palm tree, leading to a bogey.
However, Woods played the toughest hole on the course — the signature 18th — perfectly, busting a drive into the fairway, drawing a 9-iron to 20 feet and then, theatrically, making the putt.
“In true Tiger fashion,” said McDowell, shaking his head.
In true Tiger fashion, this tournament should be over.
Woods has never coughed up a lead this big in his career and has won 19 of the past 20 times when he’s held the third-round lead on the PGA Tour.
But McDowell hasn’t forgotten that he caught Woods in the final round of the 2010 World Challenge to win in a playoff — albeit a less-confident Woods.
He won’t be flying white flags and neither will Phil Mickelson, who tried his hardest to get in Sunday’s final group with Woods.
Mickelson clearly thinks he has Woods’ number, especially after touching him up again last year at Pebble Beach.
“I really don't have to play that different than I played today,” said Mickelson, who starts five shot back. “I threw away five or six shots on the greens and around the greens.
“I just can't afford to give away those shots. I'm going to have to play a round like I played at Pebble last year, something in the low 60s.
“But 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, and if we can get off to a hot start, like I said, 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.”
Steve Stricker, who’s tied with Mickelson at 13-under, wasn’t sounding so hopeful.
“You know what kind of closer he is,” he said of Woods. “When he gets the lead in a golf tournament, it's tough. He doesn't let too many guys in usually when he gets the lead.”
Not in the past, anyway.