<
>

Woods looks like a draw, not a fade

DORAL, Fla. -- The knowing smile on Graeme McDowell's face spoke volumes. It was as if he had no doubt about the outcome, no shock that the ball would drop into the cup.

He could do nothing but watch it track toward the hole, hear the noise around Doral's 18th green slowly rise and see Tiger Woods walk after it and give a fist pump after the ball disappeared to the sound of wild cheering.

This is what Woods does -- or at least what many have lamented he doesn't do enough in recent times.

When all eyes are upon him, when there are no shots left to be played but the one facing him, he delivers. At least he used to. He did Saturday, but it's not quite the same as Sunday, right?

Yet the birdie he converted on the Blue Monster's 18th hole Saturday offered the perfect example of what has come to be expected: a 309-yard drive, a 9-iron to 16 feet, the perfect putt for a 67.

Just one hole prior, Woods was searching for his ball in a tree, an unplayable lie penalty leading to a bogey. He bounced back with a birdie to give himself a 4-shot advantage at the WGC-Cadillac Championship with one round to play.

"All respect to the way he handled himself today and the way he played," said McDowell, who seemingly threw everything at Woods and still lost ground. "Tiger played fantastic. He's going to be a tough guy to catch."

All the numbers point toward a 76th PGA Tour victory and 17th World Golf Championship title. Woods is 39 of 41 on the PGA Tour with the outright 54-hole lead. He has never lost a tournament when taking more than a 2-shot advantage into the final round, going 16-for-16. He's 7-for-7 in WGC events.

But there is one asterisk -- an interesting one given the final-round pairing with McDowell.

Woods did blow a 4-shot, 54-lead to McDowell at the 2010 Chevron World Challenge. That is the tournament that benefits Woods' foundation, played late in the year in Southern California, an unofficial event with an 18-player field.

While it doesn't count in the record book, you can bet that one mattered to Woods. He hadn't won in more than a year and was at the end of a difficult 2010 season that saw him endure plenty of personal and professional grief. A win there would have been welcome.

Gmac clipped him in a sudden-death playoff. It was the conclusion of a surreal year for the Northern Irishman, including his victory at the U.S. Open -- where Woods tied for fourth -- and a riveting final-match victory for Europe at the Ryder Cup.

So there is that bit of history, although Woods prevailed last year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational playing alongside McDowell.

And there is some difference of opinion as to whether Sunday's expected strong winds will be a benefit or a detriment to Woods' chances.

"I think that's an advantage for the rest of the field," McDowell said. "Benign conditions, the way he looks like he's playing, 67, 68, he's going to be a tough man to catch. But with tough conditions, hopefully we'll have a chance."

Aside from McDowell, the closest pursuers are Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker, who will reprise their Saturday twosome. Both shot 69 and are 5 strokes back.

"I'm going to have to play a round like I played at Pebble last year, something in the low 60s," said Mickelson, referring to his final-round 64 to win. "I threw away five or six shots on the greens. ... But 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."

Stricker also sees the challenge as difficult.

"You know what kind of closer he is. When he gets the lead in a golf tournament, it's tough," he said. "He doesn't let too many guys in usually when he gets the lead. We've all got our work cut out for us." Woods has made 24 birdies, more than he has ever had through 54 holes. The Blue Monster is meek in its final days before course owner Donald Trump does a renovation.

But the wind is supposed to blow, the greens are rock hard and fast, and if somebody gets hot early ...

"It's important to be playing well, especially if the wind is going to blow like it is," Woods said. "The ball just never stops rolling. We'll see how much water they put on the golf course overnight, if they want to push, then they can.

"I've won a few tournaments in the wind. I think if you're coming from behind, it's always nice to have tougher conditions. But also when you've got the nice lead too, it's nice to have tougher conditions and you can make a bunch of pars."

Woods has always been a master at seeing what the rest of the field is doing and adjusting. He has played from in front so often and had so much success.

Nothing is guaranteed, though. He used to never lose 54-hole leads but dropped an important one to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship. Although it was a late-season money grab, the blown 54-hole advantage to McDowell at Sherwood in 2010 was still a shocker.

McDowell is a scrappy player who has nothing to lose. Mickelson relishes this opportunity and would love nothing more than to come from way back to win. For all the talk about Stricker's putting tips and semi-retirement, it would a big deal to him to get a WGC title at age 46.

But really, this is all about Tiger -- all eyes on him, as McDowell could attest.

A victory would be Woods' second of the year and fifth in 12 months. With Rory McIlroy in a slump, Woods could set his sights on regaining the No. 1 ranking for the first time in 29 months. Masters talk -- and his ability to win a major championship for the first time in, gulp, nearly five years -- would be sure to follow.

Does another Woods coronation await?