Woods regained control with three straight birdies early in his round, then finished with a shot that covered the flag for a tap-in birdie Saturday that gave him a 4-under 68 in the Chevron World Challenge.
It was the first time all year that Woods has posted four straight rounds in the 60s, dating to his final-round 65 in Australia. What mattered was keeping his four-shot lead over U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, who also had a 68.
No one else was within eight shots of the lead.
“I’m excited about tomorrow because of the way I’m playing,” said Woods, who has never lost a tournament that he has led by at least three shots going into the final round.
Woods, who has gone more than a year without winning – or even close to winning – was at 17-under 199. He won the last two times he played Sherwood Country Club, where he is the tournament host, missing in 2008 after knee surgery and last year when his personal life was caving in around him.
But after eight months of looking like an ordinary player, he is starting to resemble the guy who has won 82 times around the world and 14 majors. It was his lowest score and largest lead after 54 holes since the BMW Championship last year, which he won by eight.
McDowell, trailing by four going into the second round, quickly closed within a shot with a two-putt birdie on the second and daring tee shot to the top-right hole location on the par-3 third.
Woods quickly pulled away. He hit a blast-and-run from a plugged lie in the bunker on the par-5 fifth to 2 feet, rolled in a fast 20-foot birdie on the sixth and then covered the flag on the seventh to about 3 feet.
Just like that, his lead was back to five.
The back nine could have gone either way. Woods was in trouble off the tee at the 11th, put picked it clean off the dirt to about 12 feet for a two-putt birdie to keep his lead at four shots. He looked to expand that lead when McDowell hit out-of-bounds on the par-5 13th, but he somehow managed a par.
On the next hole, McDowell had 6 feet for birdie and Woods was 20 feet away for par. Woods made, McDowell missed.
That’s why Woods is taking nothing for granted going into the final round. Sherwood is the kind of course where low scores are available because of the five par 5s, but it’s easy to post a big number if a player gets out of position.
Dustin Johnson found that out the hard way, playing the final four holes in 7 over for an 80 that left him at the bottom of the pack.
Woods appears to be making big strides toward getting his game back. He still sees it as baby steps.
“Since the PGA, there has been incremental progress, little stepping stones along the way,” he said.
McDowell has reason to see it differently. He played with Woods the first two rounds in the HSBC Champions at Shanghai, when Woods fell out of the hunt quickly with errant shots and suspect putting.
This was a different Woods he saw Saturday under a cloudy sky.
“I thought the ‘wide’ was still there,” McDowell said of Woods’ tee shots in Shanghai. “I thought he controlled it very well today. He really only had one bad drive, and he’s so impressive around the green. He’s the best there ever was around the greens.”
Paul Casey got off to a fast start, 5 under through seven holes, until he four-putted the eighth for double bogey. He had to settle for par on the next seven holes and wound up with a 69. He was in third place, eight shots behind.
With the greens still slick and the pins slightly tougher, Woods and McDowell matched the best score of the third round. That’s why they’ll be in a two-man race on Sunday with a title on the line. It’s not an official PGA Tour event, although it might feel like one to Woods.