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Woods on the verge of ending victory drought

Tiger Woods
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Remember when this was automatic? Death, taxes, Tiger, so predictable, so perfunctory.

Tiger Woods closing out 54-hole leads was akin to the sun rising in the east, a lock so solid you could bet the house as long as said homestead wasn’t underwater with a toxic mortgage.

Before the 2009 PGA Championship and someone named Y.E. Yang tilted against the ultimate windmill, Woods had never lost a 54-hole advantage in a major championship. Before the 2010 Chevron World Challenge and Graeme Mcdowell he’d never yielded a four-stroke, three-day advantage in any contest.

The consensus was the game’s preeminent frontrunner had lost a step on his layup and wouldn’t cast the same ominous shadow on would-be contenders as his winless drought stretched to two years.

It is curious then that as Robert Karlsson made his way to the clubhouse late Saturday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship he paused to glance up at the leaderboard and its headliner – WOODS -11.

“This is what we want,” said Karlsson, who, as fate would have it, was Woods’ Round 3 partner at the 2008 U.S. Open. “This is the best I’ve seen him play in a long time.”

Left unsaid was whether Woods’ aura would be worth a half stroke per side the way some believe it used to.

Tiger 3.0 may not inspire angina the way the old model did, but all eyes were on Woods on Saturday. His third-round 66 was his second bogey-free effort this week and moved him into a tie for the lead with Robert Rock and two-strokes clear of all others.

For close observers, Saturday’s 66 may be his biggest accomplishment of the week. Day 3 was the ultimate litmus test for Woods, who ranked 176th in Round 3 scoring on the PGA Tour last year and in November was sent spiraling down the leaderboard by a third-round 75 at the Australian Open.

In short, Saturday’s have been anything but special for the one-time Round 3 specialist.

But after two days of indifferent play on Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s par 5s, Woods began his run at the 10th with a 3-wood that dropped 40 feet from the hole and a two-putt birdie. On the 18th hole it was the same 3-wood to 70 feet for birdie that assured him a share of the lead.

“(No.) 10 was a nice way to start the back nine. I could get a 5-wood there but the wind was coming off the right so I just banked a 3-wood,” said Woods, who was 1 under on the par 5s through 45 holes. “On 18, I told Joey (LaCava), I’m going to hit the same shot I hit on 10 and it worked out.”

Following an opening round of 70 Woods’ game had steadily improved and on Saturday the only thing better than his lag putting was his play off the tee. Although he hit just four fairways on his closing nine none of the misses were more than two paces off the fairway and the new and improved stinger continues to be a staple.

“I’ve got the club in a position where I can hit that shot and I can get some heat on it and get it out there,” Woods said. “Given the right conditions and if I chase it out there with a little bit of a draw I can almost hit it as far as my driver.”

Rory McIlroy, who was paired for the third consecutive day with Woods, made a game of it and pulled to within a stroke of the lead through 53 holes, but he played the 18th up the adjacent 10th fairway, or nearly so, and highlights a group of four players two strokes back.

The Ulsterman, who has never gone head-to-head with Woods for a title, seems the most likely candidate to be this week’s Yang or McDowell and he didn’t sound like a man mulling his chances in the “B flight.”

“I’ve seen him up close the last three days, how he’s playing, and I feel like if I go out there and play my best golf I’ve got a good chance,” McIlroy said.

Whether Woods still has his 54-hole mojo remains to be seen, but the only thing more ominous at Abu Dhabi Golf Club late Saturday was the cartoonish clubhouse that looks more like a ride at Epcot than a traditional 19th hole.

He may not be the lock he once was, but with a 54-hole lead Woods still looms large.

You can catch final-round coverage of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship live Sunday on Golf Channel from 3-8 AM ET.