THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Tiger Woods lost his three-shot margin with every shot that looked good until the wind decided otherwise. He lost his lead Saturday in the Chevron World Challenge because of something that was really out of his control.
Zach Johnson was 163 yards away in the 18th fairway, one shot behind and hopeful of getting his 7-iron onto the top shelf to make par as easy as possible. Imagine his surprise when it landed near the hole and hopped back into the cup for an eagle that put him atop the leaderboard.
“I would have been happy with a 4, let alone a 3,” Johnson said. “A 2 is a steal.”
That eagle gave him a 4-under 68, allowing him to make up a four-shot deficit on Woods and take a one-shot lead into the final round of the final official event this year in America.
Woods had three bogeys on the par 5s and didn’t feel as though he did much wrong. On two of them, he hit wedges that looked good until the cool, gusting wind shifted directions and sent the ball much farther than he imagined. On the other par 5, his fairway metal hit a gust and dropped into a hazard.
The result was a 1-over 73. The prognosis wasn’t nearly as bad.
“Even though I made three bogeys on par 5s, I had two three-putts, but I played well,” Woods said. “I hit a lot of good shots that ended up in bad spots because I had bad gusts. So be it. That’s the way it goes.
“I’m right there with a chance going into tomorrow.”
Johnson was at 8-under 208 and will be in the final group with Woods, one shot behind. K.J. Choi overcame a double bogey on the par-5 second hole for a 72 and was three shots out of the lead. No one else was closer than five.
Woods had the 36-hole lead for the second straight tournament, and for the second straight time failed to break par in the third round. He felt differently Saturday than he did at the Australian Open in Sydney, where he opened with three straight bogeys and finished the day six shots out of the lead.
“Most of the time today, it wasn’t me,” Woods said. “I hit a lot of good shots today.”
The wind was strong and chilly from the start, and rarely stayed the same direction very long. With a wedge in his hand, Woods went some 40 feet long on the second hole that led to a three-putt bogey. Another wedge on the par-5 13th sailed over the green and left a pitch he had no chance to get close.
Both players ran into trouble on the par-5 16th.
Johnson was playing in the group ahead of Woods, felt the breeze in his face and tried to hammer a driver that went left of the grass and into the gallery. He tried to clear a creek and went into the trees to the right before pitching out and taking a bogey.
Woods was in the fairway, but says a gust took his fairway metal too far right and into a hazard. He thought about trying to hit out behind a pair of rocks before choosing to take a penalty drop, and he also made bogey.
The difference was how they finished.
Johnson three-putted the 17th for another bogey, then drilled his 7-iron at the flag on the 18th for the most unlikely finish to his round. Woods had to settle for pars.
Johnson didn’t realize his eagle on the final hole was for the lead. And even though he has a one-shot advantage, he doesn’t think he’s in contention until the final hour of any tournament.
Being in the last group with Woods, who has gone 26 starts since his last win?
“He’s never going to shock me on the golf course because he’s certainly the best player I’ve ever played with,” Johnson said. “I’m glad I’m playing this week and I have the opportunity to go into Sunday with at least a chance.”
Johnson, a former Masters champion, saw his streak end this year of four straight seasons winning on the PGA Tour. The Chevron World Challenge counts toward the world ranking, but is not official for the tour. He still wouldn’t mind using it as a springboard for the next season, much like Tom Lehman did in the early days of this event, and Jim Furyk did in 2009.
For Woods, going from a three-shot lead to a one-shot deficit was not the end of the world.
He felt as though he played as well as he had the first two days, without having much luck with the wind. And for a guy who has gone two years without winning, the hardest part of hoisting a trophy is getting a chance.
Woods still had his three-shot lead when he chipped in from behind the fourth green for birdie. The wind was at its worst on the sixth hole, gusting hard with leaves scattered about the fairway. Woods felt it at his back and to the right, yet as the ball was in the air, it came against him from the left. He came up well short, chipped 7 feet by the hole and lipped out.
Hunter Mahan was the first player to make a run at Woods, going out in 33 and tying for the lead briefly after Woods had a three-putt bogey on the par-3 eighth.
Woods seemed to steady himself with a beautiful flop shot on the 10th that ran up the bank and trickled back 4 feet from the cup, and a solid approach to 18 feet for a two-putt birdie on the 11th.
But he went long of the 13th, turning a birdie hole into a bogey. He made a mess of the 16th with his penalty shot. And he had nothing to match an eagle from the fairway by Johnson on the final hole.
Follow the Chevron World Challenge on Golf Channel and NBC. Airtimes: Golf Channel, 1-3 PM ET Sunday. NBC, 3-6 PM and 8:30-11:30 PM ET Sunday.