MELBOURNE, Australia (AP)—Tiger Woods has been saying since he first showed upon the PGA Tour that he plays only to win.
Lately, he has been making just as many headlines when he loses.
In the 268 official tournaments that Woods has played around the world as apro, he has never gone three consecutive events without winning when he held atleast a share of the 36-hole lead.
That streak was in jeopardy Sunday in the Australian Masters, where Woodslooked to be in control with a three-shot lead until stumbling to an even-par 72in the third round to fall into a three-way tie with the Australian duo of GregChalmers and James Nitties .
For that, Woods was thankful.
“I played myself into a tie for the lead, and I could have easily playedmyself straight out of the tournament,” Woods said Saturday. “But I grinded, Ihung in there and turned it around. That’s a huge positive.”
He took a lousy session on the practice range onto the course at KingstonHeath, and it never got any better.
Woods blocked a 3-iron on the opening par 5 and failed to make birdie forthe first time all week. He came up short of the third green with a wedge andthree-putted from the fringe for a bogey. He missed the seventh fairway well tothe right, and short-sided himself in a bunker on the eighth, both times makingunlikely pars.
The low point came at the 13th, where he was so angry after another shotsailed to the right that he slammed his driver into the ground and it bounced upand into the gallery. A surprised fan caught the club and returned it to him.
“That was my mistake,” Woods said. “I got hot after a bad tee shot andlet go of the club.”
The reaction will be far worse if he fails to win the Australian Mastersafter going into the final round tied with two players who are not among thegolf’s elite.
Nitties just finished his rookie season on the PGA Tour and easily kept hiscard, although he is No. 223 in the world ranking. Chalmers, who hasn’t won inAustralia in 11 years, also finished among the top 100 on the PGA Tour moneylist and is No. 194 in the world. His goal this year was not to return toQ-school.
Two shots behind them were Jason Dufner and Cameron Percy .
Woods was the 36-hole leader at the Tour Championship only to be passed inthe third round by Kenny Perry and beaten in the final round by Phil Mickelson .Then came the HSBC Champions last week in Shanghai, where Woods was tied withNick Watney after 36 holes, both were passed by Mickelson and Lefty went on towin again.
In the Australian Masters, where Woods faced lesser competition, he has farmore to lose.
Of his six victories this year, the easiest might have been the Buick Open.He had the lead going into the final round, but 12 of the 13 players within fiveshots of the lead were ranked outside the top 100. He had more to gain than hedid to lose.
When that was mentioned to Woods after he won by three shots, he agreed.
“Plus, you had a golf course where anyone could get hot and go low,” hesaid at the time.
That probably won’t be the case at Kingston Heath, which can be difficult tonavigate in only a slight breeze. This is old-style golf, more about angles thanpower. Whenever Woods missed a shot over the first two days, he at least missedon the right side. Not so on Saturday, when he had to work for pars and droppedtwo shots, usually by hitting in the one place he couldn’t.
“I hit some really good shots out there, but also I hit some terrible golfshots,” Woods said. “It was either-or. There was no gray area. I didn’t reallyhave any borderline shots.”
Chalmers and Nitties don’t have the pedigree, which is not to suggest theyare incapable.
Nitties played bogey-free in the third round, although he cringed after somany putts that burned the edge of the cup. Chalmers rolled in some big putts inthe middle of his round to take the lead, only to give it back with two shortmisses at the end.
They were at 10-under 206 and will be in the final group before a hometowncrowd.
The gallery has turned out in record numbers this week, their first chanceto see Woods in Australia since 1998, no guarantee of seeing him again until thePresidents Cup in 2011 at Royal Melbourne, assuming he qualifies.
No one was sure what to expect in terms of a gallery favorite Sunday.
At a World Golf Championship in Spain a decade ago, Woods battled down thestretch with Miguel Angel Jimenez , and the Spanish gallery cheered when Woodshit a chip into the water on the 17th at Valderrama and made triple bogey. Theyroot for their own in Spain.
Nitties believes the gallery will root for a good show.
“You can hear the roars are huge for Tiger and the roars are huge for us ifwe hole a putt, which is awesome,” he said. “I wouldn’t like it if everyonewas going against Tiger or an American guy or a European guy. Obviously, Tigergets massive roars because he does special stuff. But the crowd is really hopingthat we do well, and hoping that Tiger does well.”
It’s the golfing public that might not go so easy on Woods if he doesn’twin.
Alas, he is not the only one facing such pressure. One online betting agencyin Australia was so sure Woods was going to win that it paid out all its bets—$150,000—after he took a three-shot lead after the second round.