ABU DHABI - Tiger Woods put himself in position to win his second straight tournament Saturday, and this one would leave little doubt about which direction his game is going.
He finally won two months ago against an 18-man field in California.
On Saturday, against the strongest field golf has seen in at least three months, Woods shot a 6-under 66 for a share of the lead with Robert Rock going into the final round of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship.
The topic suddenly shifts from the state of his swing and his health. Woods has a 54-7 record worldwide when he has at least a share of the lead going into the final round, and a win would be the first time since August 2009 that he has won consecutive starts.
More than being atop the leaderboard, it’s how Woods got there.
“It’s fun when I’m able to control the golf ball like I did,” Woods said.
There wasn’t a lot of fist-pumping from Woods, who traded drama for consistency, racking up six birdies in a bogey-free round. It was a memorable performance by the American, mostly for his ability to hit fairways, tame the par 5s and sink clutch putts—including a six-footer for birdie on the final hole.
“It just seemed like I didn’t do a lot of things right, but I didn’t do a lot of things wrong today; it was just very consistent,” Woods said. “You know, made a couple putts here and there. … I stayed away from trouble and tried to keep the ball towards the fat side of some of these pins, and I think I did a pretty good job.”
Woods finished at 11-under 205. Rock, at No. 117 in the world, birdied his final two holes to join Woods in the last group along with Peter Hanson, who had a 64 and was two shots behind.
Also two back at 9-under 207 were Rory McIlroy, who played with Woods for the third straight day and had a 68, keeping the No. 3 player very much in the picture.
Francesco Molinari (66) and Paul Lawrie (68) also were tied for third. George Coetzee (65), James Kingston (67), overnight leader Thorbjorn Olesen (71) and Jean-Baptiste Gonnet (69) were another shot back.
The two-month break did little to slow Woods’ progress. This was the first time in 20 months—dating to The Players Championship in 2010—that he broke par in the opening three rounds of any tournament. It was his lowest score since a 66 in the second round of the Masters last year and his first time atop the leaderboard in a full-field event since he won the Australian Masters in November 2009.
Woods was two shots back after the second round but started climbing up the leaderboard Saturday with an opening birdie, followed by another on No. 7. He stepped up his game on the back nine and grabbed a share of the lead after he just missed an eagle putt on 10 and settled for a birdie. He briefly took the outright lead with a birdie on 14.
The crowd of several hundred cheered every birdie, with some yelling “Tiger’s back.”
Woods refused to talk about his chances of winning, saying there were too many players within striking distance.
“There’s a ton of guys with a chance to win,” Woods said. “I can’t go out there and shoot even par and expect to win. I’ve got to go out there and go get it.”
Rock, who got his first European Tour win last year in Italy in a playoff with Sergio Garcia, admitted he was star-struck at the prospect of teeing off alongside Woods, calling him “the best guy I’ve ever seen play golf.”
Rock was just one of several players who challenged Woods for the lead after overnight-leader Olesen fell back.
Lawrie, the 1999 British Open champion, showed some of the form he displayed when he finished second at the Dubai World Championship in December. He strung together birdies on 10 and 11 to tie Woods for the lead, fell back with bogeys on 14 and 17 and then recovered to birdie the 18th.
Molinari and Hanson also bounced back from opening-round 74s to move into contention. Molinari had five birdies on his back nine, while the 47th-ranked Swede had eight birdies in his round—including three on the last five holes— in a bogey-free round to finish with the lowest score of the day.
U.S. Open champion McIlroy also is still in the mix, a day after he had two double bogeys, including on the 9th when he was penalized for brushing away sand in front of his ball. He only had one bogey to go with five birdies Saturday, but the 22-year-old Northern Irishman was forced to scramble several times to save par, including on the 18th when an errant drive went into nearby rocks and almost into a pond.
“I definitely felt today was a lot better than yesterday,” McIlroy said. “So hopefully I can just keep that going tomorrow and maybe get off to a fast start and put pressure on the guys in front of me.”
Top-ranked Luke Donald (73) is 11 shots behind Woods, with No. 2-ranked Lee Westwood (68) seven off the lead.
Any victory would bolster Woods’ claims that work with coach Sean Foley has successfully revamped his swing with a better trajectory on his shots. The process sputtered early on, but his body is now “remembering these positions because this is what I used to be when I was a kid.”
“And that’s one of the things that Sean showed me, some video stuff when I was much younger, back in my teenage years,” Woods said. “He was like, ‘It’s amazing; we need to get back there. That’s where you play some pretty good golf.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I did’.”