Friday, the leaderboard at the WGC-Cadillac Championship was the best one of the year, hands down. After two rounds, Tiger was at the top of the heap with G-Mac two strokes behind and Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker T3 one back of him. And there was a bunch of cascading glitter on down from there.
After Saturday’s third round, the quality at the top is still “best of the year” quality, just a couple of names have shuffled around a little bit.
The top of the heap remains and begins with Tiger who shot a solid 5-under par, 67 that included two bogeys. That got him to 18-under with a 4-shot lead over Graeme McDowell who continues to hang on to 2nd by himself.
McDowell got off to a rip roaring start with an easy as pie eagle-3 on the par-5 1st hole to Tiger’s birdie. That closed the gap to just one shot. But Tiger countered with another birdie on the 2nd to get it back to two. They both birdied the 3rd to go deeper with the same spread.
But Tiger bogeyed the 5th to shrink it to a one again and when G-Mac birdied the 6th, Tiger’s lead was gone. It was one of the most exciting couple of hours on the Tour all year long for both Tiger’s rekindled brilliance and G-Mac’s steadfastness not to fall off the pace.
But as he frequently used to do, Tiger popped that balloon when he birdied 8, then 10 and G-Mac bogeyed 11. Back to a three-shot lead. And then it appeared that G-Mac was falling off the face of the earth with a double bogey on 14 that pushed him all the way to five shots back. And then Tiger hit him with another birdie on 15 that got it to six shots and the coronation bells began pealing.
But, “Not so fast!” claimed G-Mac with his chip-in eagle-2 on 16 to get it back to four shots and within striking distance. He lost two shots on the day but with that little burst of momentum that late in the game, he preserved some hope for Sunday.
But Tiger had one last hurrah that no one would have noticed had it not been for Johnny Miller’s commentary on NBC. All day long, Tiger had been striping finely tuned cut shots taking the left side of the course out of play with a reliable artistry we hadn’t seen in a while.
But when he got to 18, a cut shot would have to have been started out over the fronting pond with hopes that the estimation of the cut and the left to right wind speed would add up to a shot near the hole. In other words, not stop turning over the pond and not drift in the wind right of the green or into the back right bunker.
So instead, Tiger hit his first right to left shot against the wind on a line right of the flag and nowhere near the water. It was perfect and he punctuated it with a step-on-your-thoat birdie for emphasis. It was the Tiger of old in all his glory.
I just need to continue on with the track that I was working with Sean. I’m hitting the ball further and it’s just about adjustments. I haven’t hit my irons this far, well, with the new ball, ever, so it’s kind of nice to be able to get the ball out there.
I’ve had to reestablish the new numbers and new feels and just took a little bit of time and I worked on it. It’s starting to pay off.
I’m finally healthy and that has a lot to do with it. I’m able to make changes with Sean and those have been pretty much implemented.
We are just making fine tunes, each and every day you have little bitty adjustments here and there but the major overhauls are done and now I have more time to dedicate to my short game and that’s allowed me to win some golf tournaments last year and obviously win at Torrey this year.
This does not sound like a guy who has any trepidation about his swing’s evolution. Couple that with a four-shot lead and G-Mac will have a handful Sunday afternoon. But he’s looking forward to it:
You know, really we are just trying to position and give ourselves a chance for tomorrow.
Yeah, I played as good as I could the first ten holes. I left a lot of putts out there, though. I made some nice ones and I missed some makeable ones, and you know, Tiger played fantastic. He was very solid, very under control, putted great.
You know, we were — it was a lot of fun out there, certainly for the first 11 holes, and even the first ten holes. Like I say, I lost my way a little bit for four or five holes, and he was pretty impressive. But a lot of fun to be out there with one of the best players in the world and getting a chance to tussle with him again tomorrow.
Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker are T3 at 13-under, but Phil looks at his score and realizes that he played good enough to do well Sunday:
Look, I shot 69 today. I 3‑putted from four feet on 3. I didn’t get up‑and‑down from off the edge on 8 and 10. I missed a 5‑footer on 15. There were shots out there that were numerous shots that could have brought it down to the score I need for tomorrow. I really don’t have to play that much differently.
It’s a course where you can make a lot of pars, but it’s not always easy to make birdies when you have to. And if Steve or I can get off to a hot start, the group in front, I think we can make a run.
But Stricker sees the challenge being a little steeper than Phil:
It’s going to be tough. What does [Tiger] have, maybe a four‑shot — yeah, it’s going to be tough. You know what kind of closer he is. 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 all got our work cut out for us, and you know, we’re going to have to go out and try to make birdies on a difficult golf course, which is hard to do.
And then, not because they have much of a chance of making up a seven-shot deficit, but more to illustrate the quality of the field, we have four guys tied at T5: Sergio Garcia and Michael Thompson who both shot 5-under, are paired in the second to the last group and Sergio had good things to say about his game and Thompson’s.
[Thompson] played very solid. Obviously he didn’t really miss a lot of shots. He hit some really good putts. And we both played fairly well.
I obviously struggled a little bit with the wind on some shots that I hit well and mis-clubbed because of it but other than that, for the most part I hit the ball fairly well and I’m happy with that.
This assessment will make Thompson very happy with himself, almost in a life-affirming way, because one of his biggest takeaways from his impressive win last week in the Honda Classic was that his win now made him, “one of the guys.” Sitting where he is in the catbird seat, you’d think that would be strong validation that he was right.
And the other two guys at T5 are Charl Swartzel, the 2011 Masters Champion, and Keegan Bradley, the 2011 PGA Champion.
In many respects, these guy probably know their chances a low unless Tiger loses ground early. But it’s also true that knowing that guys like these are lurking back there could cause Tiger to blink a time or two.
It’s going to be a great Sunday finish. And although the handwriting is on the wall, as always, nobody really knows what’s going to happen.