Tiger is close, but not green jacket close

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He missed a 2½-foot putt. He laughed sarcastically at his tee shots. He grimaced as his former BFF, Augusta National, gave him wet willies.

So why then is Tiger Woods so achingly close to a majors breakthrough?

Woods could have won this thing, you know. Not because he took the leaderboard behind the woodshed Saturday -- he didn't, shooting a clunky 2-over-par 74 -- but because almost nobody else did.

Rory McIlroy, the 21-year-old Northern Irishman who can recite every shot of Tiger's win here in 1997, remains your Masters leader entering the final round. He's led or co-led from the start to the end of 54 holes. Unless he has to play left-handed Sunday, McIlroy will become the second-youngest Masters winner in history ... just 237 days behind Woods.

Seven strokes and 14 years separate Woods from McIlroy. A birdie by McIlroy on No. 17 and a bogey by Woods on No. 18 turned the possible -- a Sunday charge to overtake the leader -- to the near impossible.

Of course, don't tell Woods this. Asked if he could still win the tournament, Woods didn't hesitate.

"Absolutely," he said, hands on hips.

Woods must have been channeling his inner Nick Faldo when he said it. Or maybe he was overcome by Saturday's stifling heat and humidity.

Yes, in 1996 Greg Norman began the final round of the Masters with a six-stroke lead. And he lost by five shots to Faldo.

But McIlroy hasn't been Larry Mized by this place. Norman had the memories of Mize and that crazy, do-you-believe-in-miracles 1987 playoff chip-in still rattling around in his brain. McIlroy doesn't have that thick of scar tissue.

Nineteen of the last 20 Masters winners have come from the last Sunday pairing. McIlroy is in it, Woods isn't.

Woods is tied for ninth, meaning he'd have to high jump over 12 other players to take the lead. Not going to happen. His game hasn't recovered from swing surgery yet.

But he's close. Really close. Not win-a-fifth-Masters close, but good enough to stick it to Ian Poulter, who said Woods wouldn't even finish in the top five.

"I had a two three-putts in there," said Woods, who ended a streak of 16 rounds of par or better at Augusta National. "And I had a lot of beautiful putts that didn't go in. I could have easily been 3, 4, 5 under par."

Instead, he was 2 over for the day and lost more ground to McIlroy. His first shot of the day -- a perfect 3-wood that split the spine of the No. 1 fairway -- settled into a divot. His birdie putt on No. 5 stopped at the edge of the cup, took a glance down and said, "No, thank you, I'm afraid of the dark." Par.

As usual, he lost his annual fistfight with the par-4 11th hole. He bogeyed it Thursday, bogeyed it Saturday and now has exactly one birdie there in the last 11 years. The hole is called "White Dogwood." Woods, after pulling his putt on a 2½-footer, would like to rename it, "Green Death."

He laughed derisively at his tee shot on No. 13 (even though it ended up OK). He asked, "How far did that go?" after his second shot sailed on him No. 14. He three-putted the usual birdie-friendly 15th. He was under a tree on No. 17. And he bogeyed No. 18.

"I swung the club well all day," he said. "That wasn't the problem. Like I said, two three-putts and a bunch of putts that looked like they were going to go in. I just didn't make anything on the greens."

To all those who say Woods won't win a major this year -- or win anything this year -- it might be time to tap the delete button on those predictions. Woods is nearer a breakthrough than anyone realized.

I say this with a straight face. I say it despite knowing that Woods was eight strokes worse Saturday than he was Friday, when he shot 66.

But the swings look less mechanical than they had from Bay Hill or Doral. For huge chunks of the first three days of this tournament, Woods appeared to be playing golf, rather than giving himself on-course lessons.

This is the course he knows best. And in the last six years, he's finished no lower than sixth. So a Sunday run to Top Five Land is a probability, not a possibility.

He won't win, but he'll add to his confidence. And these days, that matters.

"I've got to go out there and put together a good round [Sunday] and see what happens," he said.

McIlroy is going to happen Sunday. But one of these majors -- and soon -- Woods is going to happen too.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.