Putter saves Woods at crunch-time

CHASKA, Minn. -- Tiger Woods makes highlight reels with eagles and birdies.

He wins major championships with pars.

Four times on a brutally difficult Saturday at Hazeltine National -- at the ninth, 10th, 12th and 16th holes -- Woods saved himself from disaster by "puring," as he likes to call them, crucial par putts.

One of them even brought the inspiration of Payne Stewart to his mind.

And thanks to Stewart, steel nerves and his trusty Scotty Cameron, Woods -- who has never come from behind to win a major (all eight have come when he's been tied or leading after 54 holes) -- is in the running for his third PGA Championship and ninth major of his young career.

"I made some big par putts out there today," said Woods, who finished with an even-par 72 that featured a birdie, 16 pars and a bogey at the 18th.

His most remarkable putt came at the signature 16th hole. Woods hit a perfect drive, but a sloppy second shot ended up in the long rough to the left of the green. His third shot, a flop, stopped 25 feet from the cup -- and it rolled even further back in the howling wind.

But Woods -- typically -- didn't panic. He calmly lined up the putt, stroked it and watched as it trickled slowly to the hole. About a foot away, it seemed like it would end up short. But one final turn gave Woods, who firmly pumped his fist and shouted after he made it, the par he desperately needed to stay within shouting distance of Leonard, who was putting together a mini-birdie binge behind him.

"I remember Payne making a big putt there (in the 1991 U.S. Open)," Woods said. "And I remember him pointing up into the grandstands, saying thank you. Some guy gave him a read or whatever it was.

"So I kind of remembered that, and I said, 'Well, if he can make one, I can make one,'" Woods said.

Mission accomplished.

Woods, playing in the gusty, unpredictable winds, opened his round with 10 straight pars. He hit all but one fairway as he played cautiously and waited for an opportunity.

He didn't have many legitimate birdie putts -- one at No. 1, when a 15-footer from under the hole slid by; another at 11, when he tapped in after barely missing an eagle; and again at 14, when his 15-footer trickled by on the left side of the cup.

But those were the exception rather than the rule.

"I didn't try to be aggressive at all today," he said. "The golf course, the way it's playing now, if you hit the ball to the middle of every fairway and put the ball on the green, two-putt and move on, you're going to do all right.

"Occasionally, you're going to make a putt here and there, and if you look at the leaders, that's what they're doing. You're not going to go low on this golf course, the way it's set up right now.

"But you can go pretty high," he said.

Starting at the ninth, he scrambled a little off the tee.

On the ninth hole, he went from fairway bunker to greenside bunker, but saved par with an 8-foot putt.

On the 10th, he left his approach from the right rough 60 feet short of the pin and two-putted a hole that he thought he had a chance to birdie.

At the 12th, he left his second shot -- from 193 yards to a tree-guarded pin -- in the rough short of the green. He nearly chipped in, but the ball rolled well past. Faced with falling four shots behind the leaders, Woods calmly stroked in a right-to-left 12-footer.

And then he saved par at the 16th, bringing a huge roar from the gallery that swelled to 40,000 on Saturday afternoon.

"(That) meant a lot," Woods said.

His wayward driver finally caught up with him at the 18th hole, where he drove the ball right into the fence guarding the hospitality tents. He hit a hook to the front of the green -- shades of his remarkable 3-iron early Saturday morning that led to a birdie to end the second round -- but couldn't get up and down to save par.

"Any time you end with a bogey, it's always disappointing," Woods said. "Today, I fought so hard just to hang in there."

Woods trails Justin Leonard by five shots heading into Sunday's final round. He knows he'll have to make some birdies. And after a round where he made only one, he thinks there will some birdies to be had Sunday.

"You've just got to keep plugging along and give yourself putts at it," Woods said.
"Hopefully tomorrow, I can play a little better and get back in it."