SYDNEY – This was what Tiger Woods was talking about on Tuesday when he was asked to explain the next step in the evolution of a comeback. This would be the ultimate litmus test for all that south Florida lab work. This, more so than those opening salvos in the Southern Hemisphere, would be the ultimate “tell.”
Those squeaky-clean cards of 68-67 were easy on the eyes, but ultimately Woods needed to find out if he could grind out a score like he did pre-November 2009. Could he take a lemon game and turn it into under-par lemonade?
“My bad rounds need to be under par, not over par,” Woods said Tuesday. “You need to turn a 73, 74 into a 68 or a 69. That’s something I haven’t done through this stretch and I’m looking forward to being able to do that again.”
On Saturday at the Australian Open the third round went to lemons.
Woods, who began a bright, breezy day one clear of the pack, went south quick – a rope-a-dope entrance of three consecutive bogeys. Let the record show Woods turned a “70 or 71,” his words, into an unsightly 75.
A day that began with Woods looking to win his first event of any kind in two years ended with the former Man of Steel looking for help just to land low American honors when the circus bolts New South Wales for next week’s Presidents Cup and the unfriendly confines of Royal Melbourne.
Woods finished at 6 under, a half-dozen adrift of front man John Senden, who slapped a 63 on The Lakes in Round 3.
“Shooting 75s (is) never fun,” Woods reasoned.
Not fun for Woods or what seemed like all of Oz which was poised for something special on Saturday. Instead of magic the masses were treated to something much more mundane.
It’s a measure of how savvy Australian golf fans are that as the afternoon wore on Woods’ gallery diminished from a few thousand to a few hundred.
Woods rebounded following his sloppy start with a birdie at the fourth, which would account for half of his under-par holes for the day. He turned in 38 still within three shots of the lead with The Lakes’ downwind run waiting – a drivable par 4 (No. 13) and three par 5s.
If he pressed, like he did on Thursday, he could salvage the day. He could turn this 75 into something more palatable. But he bogeyed the par-5 11th after hitting into the outback, parred the 13th following a good drive and failed to birdie the par-5 17th for the third consecutive day.
The highlight of his inward loop was an eagle putt that lipped out at the 14th hole and resulted in his lone birdie on the back nine.
For Woods, Saturday was a day of missed opportunities. There was a 10-footer at No. 10, 25 feet at No. 16, 6 feet at No. 17 and 18 feet at the closing hole, all for birdie. To pinch a line from the late Seve Ballesteros, he missed, he missed, he missed, he missed.
“I missed every putt on the high side on the front nine and compensated on the back and missed every putt on the low side,” said Woods, who has struggled on the Australian greens, posting totals of 29, 30 and 34 putts, respectively, this week.
Peter O’Malley, who was paired with Woods, rolls all his putts from 6 feet and in with his eyes closed, true story. It just looked like Woods was navigating the quirky greens with his squeezed shut on Saturday.
Throughout Woods’ prolonged slump one of the most telling statistics has been his pedestrian scoring average. In a limited schedule this season he is averaging 70.46 per loop, his highest average ever and just the second time in his career he’s trending over 70 strokes a round.
Throughout the “comeback” there have been flashes of the old red shirt, but his inflated scoring average is a telling indicator. The man who once won with his “C” game now struggles to break par when the stars aren’t properly aligned.
“The round should have been an easy 71, no problem,” Woods said. “If I make a couple putts and take care of the par 5s it’s a decent round.”
Instead, Saturday’s effort is probably a deal breaker. It’s not so much the distance between Woods and Senden as it is the would-be champions assembled between himself and the top spot.
Jason Day has been a rare bright spot for Greg Noman’s Internationals this week and is alone in second place at 10 under, Nick Watney is another shot back and Steve Williams . . . eh, Adam Scott is looming a stroke behind Woods.
Woods needs something special on Sunday to deliver the slump buster, but even that wouldn’t completely answer the $1 million question. To twist the old cliché, you can’t win an event on Saturday but you can certainly prove a point. Of everything that Woods missed on Day 3 it was a missed opportunity that he will likely remember the most.
Watch Australian Open final-round coverage Saturday at 8PM ET on Golf Channel.