DORAL, Fla. >> With one last birdie putt that never looked like it was going anywhere but in the hole, Tiger Woods walked off the Blue Monster in a familiar position.
He had a four-shot lead over Graeme McDowell in the Cadillac Championship, the 17th time on the PGA Tour that he has led by at least four shots going into the final round. Woods has never lost when leading by that much on tour.
Saturday at Doral was a reminder, however, how quickly it all can change.
Woods knocked in a short birdie putt on the 15th hole to put six shots between him and McDowell.
Two holes later, after McDowell chipped in for eagle and Woods found himself staring some 20 feet in the air at his golf ball lodged in a palm tree to the right of the 17th fairway, the lead was cut in half.
Woods saved his best for the final hole.
He drilled a tee shot into the fairway, hit 9-iron to 15 feet and made his 24th birdie of the tournament for a 5-under 67, putting him on the cusp of another World Golf Championship and a big step toward returning to No. 1 in the world.
“After I made birdie on 15, I was looking pretty good with a six-shot lead, and with a drivable par 4,” Woods said. “Two holes later, it’s now cut down to three. I piped a tee shot down there, hit a little 9-iron there and was able to pour that putt in there.”
The ball never came down from the tree, which was about the only thing that didn’t fall his way.
The 24 birdies and 74 putts are personal records for Woods. More importantly, it put him in great position to win his 17th WGC title, and his first since 2009.
“He controlled every part of his game very well, very few loose shots,” said McDowell, who did well to two-putt for par from 85 feet on the last hole for a 69 that at least kept him in final group for Sunday.
“You know, 17 was a really bad break for him. But in true Tiger fashion that we’ve become very accustomed to over the years, to come back and birdie the last, he was fantastic today,” he said.
“So maximum respect there. He’s going to be a tough man to catch tomorrow. I get to watch it and get to see him, and hopefully get a chance to get close to him tomorrow.”
Woods has a 39-2 record when he has the outright lead going into the final round on the PGA Tour. The only time he has ever lost a lead of more than two shots in any tournament around the world was in 2010 against an 18-man field at the Chevron World Challenge, when McDowell beat him in a playoff.
McDowell certainly was up for the fight on a breezy, sunny afternoon near Miami. Despite a shaky stretch of holes that appeared to end his chances, he drove just over the green on the par-4 16th and chipped in for eagle, and hit that putt across the 18th green that amazed even Woods.
“He hit a hell of a putt,” Woods said.
Woods was at 18-under 198.
Phil Mickelson, who badly wanted to get into the final group, overcame a three-putt from 4 feet for double bogey on the third hole by making four birdies the rest of the way. He had a 69, along with Steve Stricker, and both were five shots behind.
“I threw away five or six shots on the greens and around the greens, and I feel like I don’t have to play too much different,” Mickelson said. “I just can’t afford to give away those shots. I’m going to have to play a round like I played at Pebble last year, something in the low 60s.”
A year ago, Mickelson shot 64 in the final round to win at Pebble Beach while playing in the same group with Woods.
Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 1 player, had a rough start until rallying on the back nine with five birdies in a six-hole stretch that carried him to a 71. He was 15 shots behind.
Woods used to own these WGC events, winning 16 of the first 30 that he played. He has gone 0-for-10 since Firestone in August 2009, though the odds were stacked in his favor at the Cadillac Championship. He already is a three-time winner at Doral, and he has been putting well ever since Stricker gave him a tip on the eve of the tournament.
“You know what kind of closer he is,” Stricker said. “When he gets the lead in a golf tournament, it’s tough. He doesn’t let too many guys in usually when he gets the lead. We’ve all got our work cut out for us. We’re going to have to go out and try to make birdies on a difficult golf course, which is hard to do.”
It’s even tougher with Woods playing like this. He has matched the low round of the tournament all three days.
For nine holes, McDowell threw his best golf at Woods, and Woods counterpunched in a magnificent display on the breezy Blue Monster.
McDowell opened with a 20-foot eagle, Woods with back-to-back birdies. McDowell hit his approach to 10 feet on the third hole, and Woods followed with a shot 6 inches inside as both made birdie.
McDowell finally tied him for the lead with a 20-foot putt on the sixth hole, and he had a 10-foot birdie attempt on the seventh for the outright lead. The stroke was tentative, and the ball dipped on the low side.
And that was as close as McDowell could get.
Woods had a one-shot lead as they walked toward the green on the par-5 10th hole, with McDowell on the green in two and poised to catch him again.
It all turned so suddenly.
Woods hit another superb wedge to 6 feet for birdie, while McDowell’s eagle attempt slid 4 feet by the cup, and he missed it coming back for par. McDowell was furious, slapping his leg in disgust. McDowell and Woods each had 6 feet for par on the 11th — Woods made, McDowell missed, his first bogey of the week.
That gave Woods a three-shot lead, and McDowell fell even further behind when he muffed a pitch behind the 14th green and took double bogey, and Woods hit a towering tee shot on the par-3 15th to 6 feet for birdie.
“The three-putt on 10 kind of rattled me a little bit, because Tiger didn’t look like he was going to do anything wrong,” McDowell said. “I really felt like I needed to be making putts like that.”
McDowell at least stayed in the game, but after his putt across the length of the 18th green stopped inside a foot from the hole, he could only watch as Woods poured in another putt for yet another birdie, making the task on Sunday even more difficult.
The leaderboard still had the best golfers. Woods, however, separated himself from them.
Honda Classic winner Michael Thompson and Sergio Garcia each had a 67 and were at 11-under 205, along with Charl Schwartzel (69) and Keegan Bradley (69). Masters champion Bubba Watson could only manage a 71 and was eight shots behind.
Woods will be going for his second win of the year, an ominous sign with the Masters a month away. Woods has not won twice before the Masters in five years.
“All respect to the way he handled himself today and the way he played,” McDowell said. “He’s going to be a tough guy to catch. But according to the forecast tomorrow, we are going to have strong winds. I think that’s an advantage to the rest of the field. … With tough conditions tomorrow, hopefully we’ll have a chance.”