DORAL, Fla. — Tiger Woods hit a tee shot that got stuck in a palm tree. That’s about the only thing that didn’t fall his way Saturday in the Cadillac Championship.
Woods made seven more birdies on the Blue Monster at Doral, the last one from 15 feet on the 18th hole that gave him a 5-under 67 and a four-shot lead over Graeme McDowell heading into the final round.
Woods has made 24 birdies and taken only 74 putts through three rounds, both personal bests in his PGA Tour career.
It put him in great position to win his 17th career World Golf Championship, and his first since 2009.
He has a 39-2 record when he has the outright lead going into the final round on the PGA Tour. The only time he has ever lost a lead of more than two shots was in 2010 against an 18-man field at the Chevron World Challenge, when McDowell beat him in a playoff.
McDowell was six shots out of the lead with three holes to play when he tried to keep it close. His drive on the 16th finished just over the green, and he chipped in for eagle. He picked up another shot on the 17th when Woods’ tee shot embedded high into the trunk of a palm tree. Once his ball was identified, he took a penalty drop and made bogey.
The lead was down to three shots, but not for long.
“After I made birdie on 15, I was looking pretty good with a six-shot lead, and with a drivable par 4,” Woods said. “Two holes later, it’s now cut down to three. I piped a tee shot down there, hit a little 9-iron there and was able to pour that putt in there.”
Woods made birdie to reach 18-under 198, and McDowell did well to stay only four shots behind with a two-putt from 85 feet away. That gave him a 69, and another date with Woods in the final group at Doral.
Phil Mickelson, who badly wanted to get into the final group, overcame a three-putt from 4 feet for double bogey on the third hole by making four birdies the rest of the way. He had a 69, along with Steve Stricker, and both were five shots behind.
“I threw away five or six shots on the greens and around the greens, and I feel like I don’t have to play too much different,” Mickelson said. “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.”
A year ago, Mickelson shot 64 in the final round to win at Pebble Beach while playing in the same group with Woods.
Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 1 player, had a rough start until rallying on the back nine with five birdies in a six-hole stretch that carried him to a 71. He was 15 shots behind.
Woods used to own these WGC events, winning 16 of the first 30 that he played. He has gone 0-for-10 since Firestone in August 2009, though the odds were stacked in his favor at the Cadillac Championship. He already is a three-time winner at Doral, and he has been putting well ever since Stricker gave him a tip on the eve of the tournament.
“You know what kind of closer he is,” Stricker said. “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. We’ve all got our work cut out for us. We’re going to have to go out and try to make birdies on a difficult golf course, which is hard to do.”
It’s even tougher with Woods playing like this. He has matched the low round of the tournament all three days.
For nine holes, McDowell threw his best golf at Woods, and Woods counterpunched in a magnificent display on the breezy Blue Monster.
McDowell opened with a 20-foot eagle, Woods with back-to-back birdies. McDowell hit his approach to 10 feet on the third hole, and Woods followed with a shot 6 inches inside as both made birdie.
McDowell finally tied him for the lead with a 20-foot putt on the sixth hole, and he had a 10-foot birdie attempt on the seventh for the outright lead. The stroke was tentative, and the ball dipped on the low side.
And that was as close as McDowell could get.
Woods had a one-shot lead as they walked toward the green on the par-5 10th hole, with McDowell on the green in two and poised to catch him again. It all turned so suddenly.
Woods hit another superb wedge to 6 feet for birdie, while McDowell’s eagle attempt slid 4 feet by the cup, and he missed it coming back for par. McDowell was furious, slapping his leg in disgust. McDowell and Woods each had 6 feet for par on the 11th — Woods made, McDowell missed, his first bogey of the week.
That gave Woods a three-shot lead, and McDowell fell even further behind when he muffed a pitch behind the 14th green and took double bogey, and Woods hit a towering tee shot on the par-3 15th to 6 feet for birdie.
“The three-putt on 10 kind of rattled me a little bit, because Tiger didn’t look like he was going to do anything wrong,” McDowell said. “I really felt like I needed to be making putts like that.”
McDowell at least stayed in the game, but after his putt across the length of the 18th green stopped inside a foot from the hole, he could only watch as Woods poured in another putt for yet another birdie, making the task on Sunday even more difficult.
The leaderboard still had the best golfers. Woods, however, separated himself from them.
Honda Classic winner Michael Thompson and Sergio Garcia each had a 67 and were at 11-under 205, along with Charl Schwartzel (69) and Keegan Bradley (69). Masters champion Bubba Watson could only manage a 71 and was eight shots behind.
Woods will be going for his second win of the year, an ominous sign with the Masters a month away.
“All respect to the way he handled himself today and the way he played,” McDowell said. “He’s going to be a tough guy to catch. But according to the forecast tomorrow, we are going to have strong winds. I think that’s an advantage to the rest of the field. … With tough conditions tomorrow, hopefully we’ll have a chance.”