AKRON, Ohio – Tiger Woods bolted toward his golf ball with the intensity of a predator sizing up its prey. He examined it, nestled down in the rough just left of the 13th green, idling on a slight sidehill lie. He inspected his landing options on the green, then took a slow, brief, compact swing that propelled the ball directly into the hole. He turned toward the nearby gallery, punctuating the maneuver with an aggressive fist pump.
Just minutes later, Woods found his ball on the upslope of a bunker, left of the 14th fairway. Again, he inspected his options. This time, he took a mighty cut, flaring it well right of its intended target. He walked after it in disgust, fiercely ripping the glove off his left hand and muttering to himself on the way.
In case you were wondering whether a momentous lead would breed complacency for Woods in the third round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, these two brief snapshots of his day should serve to dispel any notion.
He entered the day with a seven-stroke advantage. He ended the day with a seven-stroke advantage. The score wasn’t as obscenely brilliant as one day earlier, but the tournament is just as much in control.
Call it golf’s version of Murphy’s Law, but as anyone who has scored ridiculously low will easily confess, it’s nearly impossible to match such a total one day later. This even holds true for Woods, whose second-round 9-under 61 on Friday was followed by a 2-under 68 on Saturday that seemed monotonous only in comparison to the previous day.
“You know, it's dependent on the golf course,” Woods said of putting together back-to-back super-low rounds. “Here it's not going to happen. It's just not. This golf course is too hard.”
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t trying.
Woods alternated between stepping on the gas pedal and playing prevent defense throughout the round, carding five birdies against three bogeys.
It’s a strategy he may employ on Sunday, as well, depending of course on the course conditions and his game and those of his challengers.
“Just go out there and execute my game plan,” he said of his mindset. “Whatever game plan I'm going to implement tomorrow, just go execute it. It all starts with what the weather is doing, and then I build it from there, and we'll see what I do tomorrow.”
Avid golfer (and yes, professional baseball player, too) Yogi Berra once determined that “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” and, rest assured, this golf tournament isn’t over yet – even if every other contender trudged off the course talking about playing for second place.
“If he's too far ahead, he's too far ahead,” lamented Henrik Stenson, who finished the round in solo second, but still seven shots behind. “It might be a race for second, but we'll see.”
“This will be a heck of a tournament for the fans and everybody out here if he wasn't playing, but that's not the case right now,” said Jason Dufner, currently eight back. “As players you've got to try and respond with what you can to try and catch him. It's a tough task.”
“Well, I want to finish as near as I can to him, really,” Chris Wood suggested, “because that's probably going to be second.”
In his younger days, Woods may have viewed a touchdown lead entering the fourth quarter as reason enough to step on the necks of everyone competing in the B Flight, but something – call it maturity; call it conservatism – has instilled in him over the second half of his career the rationale in these situations that it doesn’t matter whether he wins by two or five or eight.
In every instance, they still give you a trophy and an oversized paycheck.
There’s little doubt such riches are already being inscribed with Woods’ name, that a fifth PGA Tour victory of the season and a 79th of his career are an inevitability come Sunday afternoon.
That doesn’t mean he will become complacent on the course.
Woods has enjoyed his share of final-round victory laps over the years. This will undoubtedly become another coronation, but if we learned anything on Saturday, it’s that he won’t treat the round with any less importance.