Improved Tiger still comes up short

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The rain continued to fall, and the sky was getting darker, and the scoreboard said Tiger Woods had lost again.

But it would be unfair to make it that simple.

Yes, the weather was atrocious, and the United States forged a comfortable lead heading into the final day at the Presidents Cup. To Woods, the team is the thing, despite his personal woes.

"It's a team game this week,'' he said by the side of the 18th green Saturday. "That's all that matters.''

Asked about his game, Woods went the self-deprecating route.

"I putted great, didn't I?'' he quipped, knowing full well that it was among the more frustrating putting performances of his career.

And yet, the ball-striking was perhaps the best it's been since he began working with instructor Sean Foley more than a year ago.

In a four-ball match that he and partner Dustin Johnson lost 1-up to Y.E. Yang and K.T. Kim, Woods hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation. He did it in constant rain and falling temperatures, playing to greens that are some of the most treacherous in the world.

Who knows if Saturday's play at Royal Melbourne will be looked upon as the personal breakthrough for Woods, but it sure was impressive -- if you forget about the putting, which was equally as unimpressive.

"That's the way I've been playing at home, man,'' Woods said while trying to watch the remaining matches. "People don't understand it. That's what I've been doing. I finally did it out here.''

And the United States is doing it without him.

Despite winning just two of the afternoon's five matches, the U.S. goes into Sunday's 12 singles matches with a 13-9 lead. They need just 4½ points to win the Presidents Cup.

Hunter Mahan, who was on the wrong end of the final match at last year's Ryder Cup in Wales, made a clutch birdie putt on the 17th hole to clinch one of the U.S. victories. Jim Furyk remained perfect, improving his record to 4-0 this year with the help of Nick Watney.

"This definitely has the Ryder Cup atmosphere,'' said Mahan, who along with Bill Haas faced Australia's Aaron Baddeley and Jason Day. "It was difficult. It was tough. We grinded ... a lot going on today.

"We were playing the Australian team and felt like we were playing all of Australia out there.''

Had Woods and Johnson been able to take care of business, the Presidents Cup would be all but over. Four points are difficult enough; 4½ or 5 would be impossible.

But Woods simply could not make a putt. He did make three birdies, although he missed four putts inside 10 feet and another seven putts inside 15 feet. On the 18th green, he had a 16-footer that would have given the U.S. a half point, and he once again saw it roll past the hole. (Johnson was not much better; he made only two birdies and was out of a hole six times, leaving it all to Woods.)

It meant that captain Fred Couples' controversial captain's pick dropped to 1-3 at the Presidents Cup, his only victory coming earlier Saturday when he and Johnson won their foursomes match 3 and 2 over Adam Scott and K.J. Choi.

The conditions again played a role in the day's activities. On Friday, Royal Melbourne was a sauna, with temperatures soaring into the low 90s and a stiff breeze feeling like a constant blow dryer.

On Saturday, it all changed. It rained for most of the day, and as the precipitation persisted, the temperature continued to drop. By late afternoon, it was in the low 60s and felt considerably colder.

It was a brutally long day of golf at the Presidents Cup, one that started at 7 a.m. local time and did not end until more than 11 hours later. The U.S. built a big lead in the morning foursomes matches, taking four of five to build an 11-6 advantage.

But five four-ball matches remained in the afternoon, and the International team needed a rally to make Sunday's singles interesting.

And they didn't figure to get help from Yang and Kim. Although Yang showed his pluck by famously rallying to defeat Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship, he had not played particularly well here, going 0-2 prior to the match with Woods. And neither had fellow South Korean K.T. Kim, a 25-year-old who plays mostly on the Japan Tour. Kim had also been 0-2.

They were going up against Woods and Johnson, which should have meant a considerable distance gap off the tee. But despite hitting all those greens in regulation, Woods couldn't buy a putt. Neither could Johnson, and they lost to a tandem that made five birdies.

"It's all about making putts in match play,'' Woods said. "And we didn't do that.''

Match play often doesn't follow form. You can play well and lose, play poorly and win. Woods, you would think, would excel at the best-ball format, especially during his years of individual domination. He gets to play his own ball, but has the backup of a partner just in case.

And yet, somehow, his overall record in four-ball at the Presidents Cup dropped to 5-9. Throw in the Ryder Cup and he's 10-15.

Woods has one more opportunity to see some putts fall. In singles, he is 8-3-1 overall in both the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. He'll play Baddeley in the 11th of 12 matches.

By then, the Americans might very well have clinched the Cup.

If not ... well, Tiger could be in for a battle against a big crowd favorite, needing those putts to drop.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.