Tiger Keeps 4-Stroke Lead at Sherwood

Tiger Woods was in the middle of the fairway, posing over an 8-iron from 170 yards away. Luke Donald was on the top of the hill next to the clubhouse when he turned his head upon hearing another big cheer from the gallery that surrounded the 18th green.

The large video screen in the distance showed the ball next to the hole.

“Looks like he’s finding his form,” Donald said.

It’s looked like that all week.

With three straight birdies early to turn back a brief challenge, a key par save on the back nine and one last birdie on the 18th, Woods had a 4-under 68 in the Chevron World Challenge to maintain his four-shot lead over U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell.

Following the worst year of Woods’ career, he is one round away from a familiar finish.

“I’m excited about tomorrow because of the way I’m playing,” Woods said.

It was the first time all year that Woods has posted four straight rounds in the 60s, dating to his final-round 65 in the Australian Masters two weeks ago. What mattered was keeping his four-shot margin over McDowell. Woods has never lost a tournament when leading by at least three shots going into the final round.

No one else was within eight shots of the lead.

After eight months of looking like an ordinary player, Woods is starting to resemble the guy with 82 wins and 14 majors. It was his lowest score and largest lead after three rounds since the BMW Championship last year, which he won by eight.

Woods was careful not to get ahead of himself.

“To be honest with you, I don’t look at it that way when I’m out there playing,” he said. “I’m just in the moment, trying to put the golf ball on different sides of the fairway, where I need to put it on the green. I just play. You would think that my mind might go there, but it’s good discipline. Feels good.”

McDowell, trailing by four going into the second round, quickly closed within a shot with a two-putt birdie on the second and daring tee shot to the top-right hole location on the par-3 third.

Woods quickly pulled away. He hit a blast-and-run from a plugged lie in the bunker on the par-5 fifth to 2 feet, rolled in a fast 20-foot birdie on the sixth and then covered the flag on the seventh to about 3 feet.

Just like that, his lead was back to five.

The back nine could have gone either way. Woods was in trouble off the tee at the 11th, put picked it clean off the dirt to about 12 feet for a two-putt birdie to keep his lead at four shots. He looked to expand that lead when McDowell hit out-of-bounds on the par-5 13th, but he somehow managed a par.

On the next hole, McDowell had 6 feet for birdie and Woods was 20 feet away for par. Woods made, McDowell missed.

That’s why Woods is taking nothing for granted going into the final round. Sherwood is the kind of course where low scores are available because of the five par 5s, but it’s easy to post a big number if a player gets out of position.

Dustin Johnson found that out the hard way, playing the final four holes in 7 over for an 80 that left him at the bottom of the pack.

Woods appears to be making big strides toward getting his game back. He still sees it as baby steps.

“Since the PGA, there has been incremental progress, little stepping stones along the way,” he said.

McDowell has reason to see it differently. He played with Woods the first two rounds in the HSBC Champions at Shanghai, when Woods fell out of the hunt quickly with errant shots and suspect putting.

This was a different Woods he saw Saturday under a cloudy sky.

“I thought the ‘wide’ was still there,” McDowell said of Woods’ tee shots in Shanghai. “I thought he controlled it very well today. He really only had one bad drive, and he’s so impressive around the green. He’s the best there ever was around the greens.”

Paul Casey got off to a fast start, 5 under through seven holes, until he four-putted the eighth for double bogey. He had to settle for par on the next seven holes and wound up with a 69. He was in third place, eight shots behind.

Asked the last time he felt so good about his game, Woods said, “Probably Monday of the Ryder Cup.”

That would be the final day, when he played the final seven holes at 7 under in beating Francesco Molinari. Woods showed more flashes in Australia when he played his last six holes at 6 under.

This has been different. Woods has had a few loose swings, a few bad patches, but only two bogeys for the week. As he has done so often, he has built a lead and stayed in control.

Woods says the difference between this tournament and his last few events has been grasping what Sean Foley is teaching.

“I still view this as incremental. I don’t see any leaps and bounds because it’s been an understandings of the swing, the technique, and becoming more efficient,” he said. “I think that’s what you’re seeing. I’m just more efficient at it.”