Delighted Tiger Woods hits his stride in Masters build-up



For all his major championships, 14, and PGA tour victories, 75, Tiger Woods has never before breached 22 birdies in three rounds. That is until he racked up another seven at the WGC-Cadillac Championship here yesterday to add to the 17 he drained in the opening two.

So, at the age of 37, and with a resume second only to one, Jack Nicklaus, Woods breaks new ground here. He even left a ball in a palm tree at the penultimate hole, which cost him a one-shot penalty, and still signed for a 67. Given that he began his third round like a comet, posting a hat-trick of birdies first up, a four-shot lead going into the final round today might be interpreted as underachievement.

Woods claims to be hitting it further than he ever has and the evidence of a career-low 75 putts in 54 holes points to the re-establishing of lethal habits on the greens. Victory today would take his total of WGC wins to 17 and shorten the odds still further for the Masters. Woods has never surrendered a lead of such magnitude on a Sunday. Yes, the world of golf is in full Tiger hype mode, an orientation that will not alter in the run-up to Augusta.

"I'm excited about the way I'm playing, hitting the ball well and making some putts," Woods said. "I'm hitting the ball so much further. I haven't hit my irons this far ever. I've had to make some adjustments on my distance control but all the hard work has paid off. We will see how the course plays tomorrow, see how fiery it is. The wind picked up today and the greens dried out. It is nice to have a lead in tricky conditions."

Two eagles, one at the first, the second a chip-in at 16, helped keep Graeme McDowell in the final group with Woods after a 69. "He was very impressive," McDowell said of Woods. "Just very, very solid, controlling his golf ball like he did when he was winning his 14 majors."

Behind them, one shot further back, lurks Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker. Rory McIlroy's renaissance continued with a 71, an eventful round that included five birdies in six holes on the back nine and, for the second successive day, a three-putt at the last.

McIlroy fairly skipped into the weekend buoyed by the sight of a golf ball behaving as he intended. He admitted that his confidence had never been as low as it was last week and was relieved to have turned a corner. "I had a really good range session and felt like I hit the ball better. I saw a lot of positives. You go through these periods in golf where you have a tough time and things don't click. It would be great if it wasn't like that and would make the game a lot easier, but I saw a lot of good signs which shows that I'm going in the right direction."

His routing at Doral saw him paired yesterday with Ernie Els, his playing partner on that fateful afternoon nine days ago when he walked out of the Honda Classic halfway through his second round. The mood was noticeably lighter than the last time they met, with plenty of banter before the start of their round.

McIlroy went first, producing a fine strike that ended a little unluckily on a downslope in the first cut where the fairway narrows to its smallest. He still had a putt for birdie. At the second McIlroy hit a free-flowing three-wood down the left side. Though his approach held up in the wind, dropping marginally short of the putting surface, he chipped dead for par.

Another peach of a drive at the third validated McIlroy's sense of improvement. The test would come with the first mistake. It was imminent. The wind was getting up. He hit his approach clean but with too much club. His ball caught the side of the green and rolled away into the greenside valley. Frustration quickly resurfaced. A deep breath would have helped. Instead McIlroy rushed the chip, leaving it short of the green. A bogey out of nothing, yet out of everything, was the result.

He carried that disappointment to the fourth, a 220-yard par-three with water hooking around the green from the right. McIlroy found it, his tee shot landing marginally the wrong side of the banking and sliding inexorably into the drink. Playing three and clearly raging, he duffed another chip and missed his bogey putt for a double. Three shots gone in two holes and carelessness at the root of the problem.

What Els would have given for McIlroy's grandeur with a driver in his hand. He barely found a fairway on the outward nine and was forced into envious cries of "beauty" as McIlroy repeatedly aced the ether. He creamed another at five but was long with his approach. At the sixth he finally capitalised, hitting his iron to eight feet and sinking the putt for a first birdie for the round. Sometime soon McIlroy will put it all together and mulch the field in a big one. Until that moment is upon us, buckle your seat belt.

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