THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Based on history alone, the most comfortable part of Graeme McDowell’s position is being at Sherwood Country Club.
Ever since he first showed up at the World Challenge in 2009 as a last-minute replacement for tournament host Tiger Woods, McDowell has broken par in every round he has played. Saturday was no exception. He rolled in two long birdie putts early in the third round and stretched his streak to 29 holes without a bogey when he walked off the 18th green with a 4-under 68.
As for his two-shot lead? That’s not always his best spot from which to win.
McDowell’s last three wins started with at least a three-shot deficit. He has never won when he had the outright lead, although he started out tied for the lead four times.
“I’m not sure how many times I’ve won from the front,” McDowell said. “Hopefully, I’ll add one tomorrow.”
All he knows is that it doesn’t figure to be easy to pick up his first win in two years.
Keegan Bradley had to cope with more fallout on the proposed ban of the belly putting stroke when he said one man in the gallery called him a “cheater.” It didn’t keep the former PGA champion from a 5-under 67 to get into the final pairing with McDowell on Sunday.
Woods, a five-time champion at Sherwood, kept himself in the game. Even though Woods failed to birdie any of the five par 5s, he picked up a pair of birdies on the final two par 3s and added a third to salvage a 69 that left him five shots behind.
“I’m going to have to shoot a low one tomorrow and see what happens,” Woods said.
McDowell was at 13-under 203, and will try to win from the front for the first time since he was tied for the 54-hole lead at the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond in 2008. His specialty of late has been rallying on the last day — four shots behind at the World Challenge, three shots behind at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, four shots behind at the Wales Open, all of those in 2010.
On another overcast day with a light drizzle, McDowell picked up a pair of birdies he wasn’t expecting.
He laid up on the par-5 second hole and hit his wedge with two much spin, the ball rolling back down a pair of tiers that left him some 40 feet away. He rolled that in for a birdie, and then holed about a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 4. McDowell’s best swing of the day came at the ninth, with the pin at the far back of the green. He hit a 6-iron to about 6 feet for birdie, and picked up his fourth birdie with a two-putt on the 11th, the one par 5 he can reach in two.
The damp conditions all week have made some of the par 5s difficult to reach, even for some of the longer hitters, and birdies are no longer sure things. Woods found that out the hard way, missing the fairway badly to the right on No. 5 and having to lay up. Even when he was in position for birdie on the 11th, he three-putted for par. But he closed strong, and still has an outside chance.
Bo Van Pelt had a 70 and was tied with Woods at 8-under than 208. Jim Furyk was another shot behind after trading three birdies with three bogeys for a 72.
“I felt like I played decent enough to get to 10 under and just didn’t do it,” Woods said
Bradley and McDowell are the only players to post all three rounds in the 60s. A year ago, Bradley was 10 over for the tournament and never shot better than 73.
“I played so poorly here last year, it just feels so good to be in the hunt, and I’m striking the ball as good as I can,” Bradley said. “A few putts go in tomorrow, I think I could have a good run at this.”
Bradley has been the center of attention all week, especially after the USGA and the R&A proposed a new rule on anchored strokes that would keep him from using the belly putter. The rule is not to take effect until 2016 at the latest, but some fans are passionate against it.
Already this week, Bradley told of getting a tweet from some follower who advised him to apply for a job at Burger King in 2016. And then he told of the man who told him he was cheating, which was unusual for Bradley because he can’t ever recall getting heckled.
“There’s always going to be people who are negative,” he said.
The primary focus is catching up to McDowell, who is starting to feel right at home in this toney neighborhood. The runner-up finish in 2009 earned him enough ranking points that eventually got him into the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which he won for his first major, and that win assured him a spot in the Ryder Cup.
He won again in California with his comeback against Woods at Sherwood.
McDowell’s only regret Saturday was not making another birdie after the 11th hole, although the pars didn’t hurt him.
“I played disciplined golf to some of those tighter pins,” McDowell said. “Couldn’t seem to get anything to drop, but two shots ahead going into Sunday, I’ll take that any week, anywhere, any time, and it’s right where you need to be.”
It helps being at Sherwood.