Tiger Woods puts on Firestone show

AKRON, Ohio -- The jaded masses look to find flaws, seek signs of weakness, scrutinize every shot, round and tournament, then turn it into a referendum on his game. It is the expectation Tiger Woods set, an impossibly lofty standard to maintain, one that continues to dog him even in times of great golf.

So it was that Woods had an adoring follower in his midst Saturday, a guy who called him his "hero" growing up, excited about the prospect of playing with the world's No. 1 golfer for the first time.

Chris Wood is a 25-year-old Englishman who plays on the European Tour. He has one victory -- earlier this year in Qatar -- and has a couple of top-five finishes at the Open Championship. He's trying to find his way as a professional and is competing in his first WGC-Bridgestone Invitational while looking to climb into the world's top 50.

Wood shot even-par 70 in the third round at Firestone Country Club, but got more out of the afternoon than any number on a scorecard.

"It was probably better than I could have hoped for, to be honest," Wood said after finishing the third round in a tie for fourth, nine strokes behind Woods. "It was totally an experience for me, that. Just the first tee, the noise. He chipped in [for birdie] on 13. I never heard noise quite so loud on the golf course. But loved every minute. Chatted away a little bit, and after three or four holes I felt a lot more settled than I thought I might."

Woods birdied the first two holes and appeared on his way to another low score at Firestone, but he never got more under par than that on the day. His 61 on Friday was his first bogey-free round since late in 2012 and he stretched that streak to 37 holes before a bogey at the ninth.

He added two more bogeys on the back nine, but also had three birdies and managed a 2-under-par 68 that kept his lead at seven strokes, right where he was when the round began. Woods now leads Sweden's Henrik Stenson.

"I didn't quite have it, but I scored," Woods said. "And that's the name of the game is posting a number, and I did today. Grinding my way around that golf course today. As smooth as yesterday was ... [that's] as difficult as today was. I was just trying to build my lead somehow, and for most of the day I was doing that. Ended up being a dead push for the day, but that's not too bad, either."

Yes, the Tiger of old would have settled for nothing less than turning the 7-stroke lead into 10 and adding to it on Sunday. That has always been his nature, and he would likely be disappointed with nothing less than an easy romp during the final round. Still, it is the largest 54-hole lead on tour since Rory McIlroy led the 2011 U.S. Open by eight strokes.

Woods, bidding for his 79th PGA Tour title and an 18th WGC victory, has won 11 times on the PGA Tour by six strokes or more. In regular PGA Tour events, he has never blown a lead through 54-holes greater than two strokes.

All of that is ancient history to Wood, who said "he's been my golfing hero since I was 10, since I started the game, really."

Saturday offered a clinic in things that are often taken for granted with Woods.

"If he misses the green, or he's out of position, it's absolute master class in damage limitation," Wood said. "I mean, he's nearly holed out from the back of the green on 14 for a par. I learned a lot from him scoring, really. ... Around the greens, his up-and-downs, his short game, his scrambling. Any time he was out of position, he's either going to hole it or get it up and down."

And this was a day in which Woods basically struggled. He hit just eight of 14 fairways and only nine of 18 greens.

Woods acknowledged that following up such a low round is typically a struggle.

"Here, it's not going to happen," he said. "It's just not. This golf course is too hard. I was just trying to post something in the red."

Woods has won here seven times and his success tends to make it look easy, even though Firestone is still a feared layout. The scoring average among some of the best players in the world for three rounds is more than 71 -- meaning Woods is beating it by 18 shots over 54 holes.

"Every credit … to him," said Adam Scott, who is tied for ninth, 12 strokes behind. "That score is out there for anyone else who can play good enough, and no one has this week. He's obviously got his game very much under control around here."

A victory Sunday would be Woods' fifth of the year and eighth since March of 2012. It would also be his 18th WGC title, 15 more than any other player, a number that doesn't get the credit deserved when you consider these tournaments are filled with top-50 players.

Of course, the major championship question looms, and it will continue to hover over Woods until he wins his 15th and ends the five-year-plus drought in the game's biggest tournaments. But he can't win next week's PGA Championship this weekend at Firestone, and no matter what happens Sunday, it guarantees nothing a week from now at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., site of the year's final major.

The only thing Woods can do about next week is finish off this week, add another accomplishment to his long résumé, and take some confidence to Oak Hill.

"Any time you can go into a major tournament or any tournament with a win under your belt, it's nice," he said. "It validates what you're working on and you have some nice momentum going in there."