MELBOURNE, Australia – The tee shot sailed to the right and onto a sandy path. His driver bounced left and into the gallery.
Tiger Woods couldn’t get anything straight Saturday in the Australian Masters.
About the only thing that gave him hope after he struggled to an even-par 72 in the third round at Kingston Heath was seeing his name atop the leaderboard in a three-way tie for the lead with the Australian duo of James Nitties and Greg Chalmers.
“It certainly should have been a lot worse than that,” Woods said.
Woods hit one poor shot after another on a relatively benign day for scoring and created opportunities for so many others. He started with a three-shot lead. By the end of the day, a dozen players were separated by four shots.
Chalmers, who hasn’t won in Australia in 11 years, had the lead for most of the back nine until he missed a 6-foot par putt on the 16th hole and a birdie putt from about that range on the 18th. He shot a 69.
Nitties, who easily secured his PGA Tour card during his rookie season in America, agonized over so many putts that burned the edge early in the round. Even so, he kept bogeys off his card and also shot a 69.
They were at 10-under 206 with Woods, who had a chance to regain the lead until missing a 10-foot birdie on the final hole, a fitting conclusion to a round he would rather forget.
“Didn’t hit the ball very good on the range, and on the golf course wasn’t very good, either,” Woods said. “I hit some really good shots out there, but also I hit some really terrible golf shots. There was no gray area. Very fortunate to be tied for the lead.”
The low point came at the 13th.
Woods had played the par-5 12th nearly perfectly until he badly missed a 5-foot birdie putt. Still steaming, he opted for driver off the tee at the 354-yard 13th, especially with the pin to the back right of the green. The only place he couldn’t afford to hit it was to the right.
It went well to the right.
Woods slammed the head of his driver into the turf, and it bounced up and into the gallery to the left. One surprised fan caught the club and returned it.
“That was my mistake,” Woods said. “I got hot after a bad tee shot and let go of the club.”
Woods is playing Down Under for the first time since the 1998 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne. This 11-year anniversary took on an additional meaning Saturday, however, with the prospect of Chalmers winning on home soil for the first time in 11 years.
He described making up a three-shot deficit to Woods as a “tall order.” Tied for the lead with 18 holes is far better odds.
“I don’t think anybody is sitting around trying to hand the trophy to anybody else,” Chalmers said. “I think everyone is fighting to shoot the lowest score they can.”
Woods knew he was in for a long day on the par-5 opening hole, among the easiest on the course. He blocked his 3-iron into the hay to the right of the green and failed to make birdie for the first time all week. Even so, his 35-foot birdie on the second gave him a four-shot lead over fellow American Jason Dufner.
Four holes later, his lead was gone.
Woods three-putted from the fringe on the third, had to make par putts from 8 feet and 18 feet on the seventh and eighth holes, and dropped another shot on the 11th when he chipped from below the green and nearly went into a bunker on the other side.
“Today was reflective of how I warmed up,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to be tied for the lead. I played myself into a tie. I could have played myself out of the tournament.”
Dufner took the lead for the first time with a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 8, only to scramble for bogey at No. 9 as Chalmers moved to the top with his 30-foot birdie on the ninth. Dufner didn’t make birdie the rest of the way, dropped shots on the 16th and 17th, and shot 71. He was tied with Cameron Percy (69) at 8-under 208.
Michael Sim, who set an earnings record on the Nationwide Tour this year with three victories, had a 69 and was at 6-under 210 with Stuart Appleby (71), while Adam Scott had a 69 and was another shot back.
Asked what it would take to win, Nitties joking said, “Hope that Tiger doesn’t turn up.”
Nitties spent the first two rounds playing behind Woods, coping with fans who are allowed to stand in crosswalks and surround every green. He gets to play behind him again Sunday, and that’s a good thing – it means he’s no longer trailing.
Nitties was surprised, not that he was playing in the final group, but that Woods wasn’t there, too.
“I want to be playing with Tiger. He’s my idol. It’s disappointing,” Nitties said.
He paused, then smiled before adding, “It’s not that disappointing.”