Par-5s prove crucial for Tiger Woods

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Nobody expected this to be easy, least of all Tiger Woods.

He's gone more than two years without a victory, and not even the friendly confines and good karma of his own tournament at Sherwood Country Club are going to yield an easy path to a tournament title.

It might have appeared that way at times over the past two days, as Woods made a couple of eagles on Friday, chipped in for a birdie on Saturday, saw several contenders falter, and generally hung in there during a raw, blustery third round of the Chevron World Challenge.

But that wasn't enough to take the lead into the final round.

Three bogeys on par-5s -- a huge golf no-no -- contributed to a 1-over-par 73 and allowed Zach Johnson to overtake him.

Johnson had to hole out for an eagle on the 18th to forge a 1-stroke lead, but it is a lead nonetheless. The 2007 Masters champion will play in the final twosome with Woods, who at one point Saturday had a 4-shot advantage over the field but could not overcome his poor play on the easiest scoring holes.

"I gave away a ton of shots and consequently lost the lead,'' he said.

Woods was not putting all of this on himself. The 14-time major winner whose last victory came at the 2009 Australian Masters was clearly affected by the weather -- as was a majority of the 18-player field.

The morning began with frost on the greens and the temperature never climbed out of the 50s. A brisk wind led to twosomes taking some 4½ hours to complete a round.

"I hit a lot of good shots,'' Woods said.

But to make three bogeys on par-5s is not a way to win a tournament, and during his recent struggles, his domination of these birdie holes has waned. Woods has typically ranked near the top in par-5 birdie percentage over the years, and was either first or second in the category on the PGA Tour every year but one from 1996 to 2009.

But in the past two years, he has dropped out of the top 30, and that goes a long way toward explaining his scoring issues.

Why the problems with par-5s? The longest holes test the driver, long irons, short game and putting. Woods has struggled to put the ball in play off the tee at times, his short game has suffered and his putting has not been as good.

Throw in some questionable decision making such as at the 16th hole Saturday and you make bogeys.

After hitting an iron off the tee, Woods then tried to go for the green over a creek with a 3-wood. The shot came up short in a hazard -- from where he seriously thought about playing his third shot before taking a penalty -- leading to his third bogey on a par-5.

A moment later, Johnson holed a 7-iron from the fairway at the 18th to take the lead.

"I feel like even though I made three bogeys on par-5s, I had two 3-putts, but I played well,'' Woods said. "I hit a lot of good shots that ended up in bad spots because I had bad gusts [of wind]. So be it. That's the way it goes. I'm right there with a chance going into tomorrow.''

The good news for Woods is the field of contenders has shrunk to about six players. K.J. Choi trails Johnson by 3 strokes, with Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan 5 back. Paul Casey -- who has rallied from an opening-round 79 -- has an outside chance being 6 strokes back.

But Woods will be alongside a player in Johnson who has proved his toughness over the years. Not gifted with tremendous length, he has used his short skills to win seven times on the PGA Tour, including the 2007 Masters. This was the first year he went without an official PGA Tour victory since 2006.

While Woods has gone more than two years without a win, he has also gone some time without posting back-to-back top-10s. The last time he did so was at the 2010 HSBC Champions (tied for sixth) and Australian Masters (tied for fourth). He also lost last year's Chevron in a playoff.

Three weeks ago, Woods held the second-round lead at the Australian Open, shot 75 in Round 3, and eventually finished third although he started the final round farther out of contention.

"I watched the Presidents Cup -- from my couch unfortunately -- and I noticed that he looks pretty good,'' Johnson said of Woods. "I think it's health. If he's healthy and feels good about his health … and his mechanics look great. I'm not a swing coach, but to me they look good. I think they look really good.

"So he's never going to shock me on the golf course because he's certainly the best player I've ever played with.''

There is a bigger picture in play here. Woods is showing legitimate progress. Including Australia, eight of his last 10 rounds have been in the 60s. He will be in the final group for the fourth time in two tournaments.

Winning on Sunday will not mean Woods is "back,'' especially given the small field at Chevron. And yet, finishing outside of the top spot should not be considered a setback, either.

Not that Woods is looking at it that way.

"I like W's,'' he said. "That's why I play the game is for that very reason. I started doing that at the junior golf level all the way through now. That's not going to change.''

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