MELBOURNE, Australia – Back in Australia for the first time in 11 years, Tiger Woods is in a familiar place.
He opened with two birdies that revved up another massive crowd, saved his round with two par putts in the middle and kept bogeys off his card on his way to a 4-under 68 that gave him a three-shot lead Friday.
It was the fourth straight tournament that Woods has been atop the leaderboard going into the weekend. The trick now is to finish it off, even with no one among the top 50 in the world chasing him.
Woods has failed to win the last two times, at the Tour Championship and HSBC Champions, both won by Phil Mickelson.
Despite losing his swing and at times his temper, Woods built a comfortable margin over Jason Dufner (67) and a pair of Australians who had a chance to join him in the final pairing Saturday.
James Nitties, who played behind Woods in another rock-concert atmosphere at Kingston Heath, bogeyed the 15th and 17th holes and had to settle for a 71. Greg Chalmers got a bad lie on the 17th and made bogey to shoot 69.
Both lost a chance to play before a hometown crowd with the world’s No. 1 player, who was at 10-under 134.
“It’s been very rare when he comes down here, and who knows when he’ll come again, so to play with him at any time is always a pleasure,” Chalmers said. “I was a little frustrated by that, but at the same time I have played with him before. It just would have been nice in Australia to have a game with Tiger Woods.”
The hope now is that Woods gives them a chance.
“To shoot 68 today, I thought that was a pretty good number considering the conditions,” Woods said. “I did have a couple of short birdie putts that I missed … but not to drop a shot to par, those are always days that you feel quite good about.”
Dufner shot his 67 in the morning, as the skies cleared and the wind was minimal, and he finished atop the leaderboard at 7-under 137.
Woods regained the lead quickly.
First came a putt up the slope short of the green on the par-5 first hole to 3 feet. As the wind was shifting, Woods switched clubs three times from the middle of the second fairway and dropped his approach 2 feet from the hole for another birdie.
Woods appeared to be on the verge of pulling away when frustration settled in.
He slammed his driver into the ground, drawing gasps from the crowd – remember, it’s been 11 years since they have seen him – and stalked the cup after missing birdie chances from 10 feet on the 15th, and from 6 feet on the next hole. Both could have expanded his margin going into the weekend.
Still, it was a pair of par putts that kept him satisfied.
His tee shot on the ninth – the first time he pulled driver – went through the fairway and into the rough, and the grass grabbed his club on the second shot, pulling it toward the gallery. Such shots elicit cheers from fans who realize Woods will be standing next to him to play his next shot, although this chip came out hot and went 15 feet by the hole. He made it for a key par.
Then came the par-5 14th, which Woods reached Thursday with a 3-iron. Into the wind, he tried to hook a 3-wood around a gum tree, but the ball clipped branches and tumbled into a bunker some 60 yards short of the green. Woods did well to get it on the green, but he left his long putt 10 feet short. Facing a bogey, he made that putt to save par.
“I didn’t really do anything great, but I made two big par putts to keep the round going,” Woods said.
Dufner, playing before a decent-sized crowd in the group with Adam Scott, reached 9 under in the easier morning conditions until playing his last five holes in 2 over.
The American has been Down Under while playing Nationwide Tour events. Now, he’s on a tour of this part of the world, having qualified for the World Golf Championship in China, and heading to the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan.
The idea was to knock some rust off. There didn’t appear to be too much at Kingston Heath.
“I could have stayed at home and played in the States, but that’s kind of the same old thing,” Dufner said. “I play enough events over there. I thought it would be a good choice to come over here and kind of broaden my golf experience, and it happens to be a real good event now that Tiger is playing.”
The question is whether Woods will give anyone a chance.
“As a professional, you have to believe so,” Chalmers said. “Otherwise, you may as well throw your sticks in the bin. At the same time, it’s a tall order. You’re talking about the greatest player of our era, and nobody seems to know how to win more from 36 holes than him.”
Chalmers was poised to join Woods in the final group until his tee shot landed behind a clump of grass that kept him from making a free swing with a predictable outcome directly at the green. Instead, he played for a 40-yard hook to avoid the clump, missed the green and chipped poorly to make a bogey.
Woods is 1-3 with a 36-hole lead dating to the PGA Championship, when Y.E. Yang overcome a four-shot deficit – including two shots behind in the last round – to beat him at Hazeltine.
“You can ask any player whether it’s possible and we would all agree that yes, sure it is,” Chalmers said. “But I’m sure Tiger is sitting at home in his hotel going, ‘Ain’t no chance.’ But it’s golf. Crazy things can happen.”