When No. 2 birdied No. 1, the game was on. When No. 1 almost aced No. 2 it was all-but over. At least for No. 2.
Playing head-to-head, the challenger was no match for the three-time defending champion. Tiger Woods showed that while Ernie Els may have entered the week as the hottest player in the world, hes still not the best.
Woods made 12 birdies and one bogey over 29 holes to take a five-shot lead into the final round of the Bay Hill Invitational. He fired a bogey-free 6-under 66 in the third round to move to 15-under-par 201 for the tournament.
I didnt really do anything special. If you look at the round, I chipped in once, but I played the par-5s well. I played them in 4-under par, he said. I always knew the key to this golf course was the par-5s.
Meanwhile, Ernie Els, who had sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout glued to his hip while practicing, could only muster an even-par 72. He is a full 10 shots back at 5-under.
Im a little disappointed, the conditions were perfect for scoring,' Els said. 'I enjoy playing with Tiger. He loves playing with me, I can tell you that.
Hopefully, it will go my way one of these days.
For the second time in five weeks, Brad Faxon will play in the final group with Woods on Sunday. He was one back of Tiger in the Buick Invitational before losing by five.
Faxon was looking at the Bay Hill record book Friday and realized he shot 64 here in the third round in 1995. He thought: That would be a good number to shoot. Not like I can go shoot them when I want.
He almost did. Faxon bogeyed the last, but shot 65 to get sole possession of second place at 10-under.
One of my goals this year was to play more with Tiger, and not in practice rounds, Faxon said. Its going to be tough. If I can go out and shoot another great round, well see what happens.
Stewart Cink is the next closest competitor. He shot 70 to get into third place at 8-under.
Woods is trying to become the first player since Walter Hagen (PGA Championship, 1924-27) to win the same PGA Tour event four straight years. He is 27-for-29 in converting 54-hole leads into victory on tour.
Due to the threat of thunderstorms, officials have moved up tee times in the final round. Groups of three will go off on the first and 10th tees beginning at 8:00 AM ET, with the final threesome at 9:48.
A near five-hour rain delay Friday forced 61 players to conclude their second rounds Saturday morning. Woods was among that group. He woke up at 4:30 AM, struggled on the range, and the proceeded to make six birdies in 11 holes to vault past Els, who had gone to sleep with the clubhouse lead.
It was a long day, Woods said. Thats when it helps to be in decent shape.
Els had finished his second-round 65 Friday night to get to 5-under. But when Woods was done ' playing in more ideal scoring conditions in the morning ' the South African was four back.
After about a three-hour break, Woods teed it up again with Cink as his nearest pursuer.
Cink birdied the first to get within two of Tiger, as did Els to move within three. Woods parred the first and then nearly jarred his tee shot on the 218-yard par-3 second. He converted the four-footer to get to double digits under par.
Els, on the other hand, never got lower than 6-under. He three-putted from 15 feet for bogey at the third, and dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he miss-hit his drive into the lake.
The four-time worldwide winner, in 2003, made four birdies and four bogeys for just his fourth round in the 70s this year.
Tiger did his thing; he was relentless today. But I made my fair share of mistakes. Things didnt quite go my way, said Els, who added that he was somewhat bothered by the wrist he sprained when hitting a punching bag last week.
Said Woods: You could tell he was struggling with his swing a little bit. He never really hit the ball as clean, as crisp, as he normally does. He was really fighting it a bit.
While Els never got out of first gear, Cink tried to keep pace with the roughshod Woods. He birdied 3 and 4, only to pick up a single stroke.
Woods got up and down for birdie on the par-5 fourth. He then chipped in from 30 feet at the next to extend his advantage to three. A third consecutive birdie at the par-5 sixth moved him to 13-under.
Cink then bogeyed the eighth and made 10 pars coming home.
Faxon was the last man left to try and keep Woods honest. He made five birdies in a six-hole stretch to get to 9-under. Despite a bogey at 13, he went on another birdie run making three-in-a-row starting at 14.
He got within two of Tiger, at 11-under. Woods, however, still had two par-5s to complete. He got up and down for birdie at the 580-yard 12th when his 80-foot pitch shot finished 18 inches from the hole. Following three pars, he two-putted from 15 feet for another birdie at the 517-yard 16th.
Faxon didnt help his cause with a bogey at the last. He pushed his tee shot so far right that it finished on the 16th tee box. He was able to hook a 6-iron from 188 yards around some trees and to the back fringe, 50 feet from the hole. He chipped to 10 feet, but couldnt convert the save.
This is the eighth time Woods has entered the final round of a tour event with at least a five-shot lead. Obviously, hes a perfect 5-0. Still, he offers a bit of caution.
If (Faxon) goes out and shoots another 8-under-par round, Ive still got to shoot under par in order to win the tournament, he said.