ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates—Set your alarm clocks, Los Angeles. Get the coffee on the go, New York. Work out your time zones, America. It’s no sleep ’til Monday. Tiger Woods is 11 under par and shares the lead at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship after a six-under-par 66 in the third round. The fist pump. The club twirl. The swagger. It’s all back.
Woods has unheralded Englishman Robert Rock for company, and then a two-shot cushion over Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, 1999 British Open champion Paul Lawrie and Peter Hanson. This is the first time Woods has held a 54-hole lead in an official event since he won the 2009 Australian Open. The final group of Woods, Rock and Hanson will tee off at 2:45 a.m. EST (11:45 a.m. local time). Live coverage on the Golf Channel begins at 3 a.m. EST.
Woods was delighted with his game on Saturday, and his scores have improved each day of the tournament.
“It’s fun when I’m able to control the golf ball like I did,” he said. “To shape the ball both ways. Just a very consistent round. Things are progressing. It’s getting better.”
Ever the golf geek, Woods smiled when informed he had won seven season openers throughout his career and had gone on to win a major in six of those years.
“I didn’t know that,” he said. “That’s a good stat, though. It would be good if I won tomorrow then, huh?”
Woods probably regards McIlroy as the main threat to that goal, and he had nothing but praise for his new BFF. Woods and McIlroy have been in the same group in all three rounds and also played a nine-hole practice round together earlier in the week.
“He’s only 22; he’s got a major championship behind him,” Woods said. “You can see he’s learning. He’s not afraid to try shots, which is really cool to see. It’s just a matter of time before he gains more knowledge.”
Woods got off to the perfect start on Saturday. He and McIlroy made birdies on the first hole, and Woods added a second birdie at the seventh. Then on the back nine Woods began to tighten his grip on the tournament. He fizzed his drive at the par-5 10th, and then smacked a high-looping fade to 30 feet to set up a tap-in birdie. McIlroy appeared to take on Woods in a big-dog contest off the tee and out-drove him by no more than a couple of inches. But McIlroy’s approach missed the green by yards and plopped down behind some billboards. McIlroy scrambled to save par, and that was the story of his day. He worked hard and fought his swing to post a four-under 68.
Woods creamed another drive off the 11th and then beat McIlroy in a closest-to-the-pin competition at the par-3 12th. He fired his iron from 186 yards to seven feet while McIlroy’s tee shot splashed into a bunker. A wall of shiny rocks made the backdrop to the green look like a movie set from The Flintstones. Apparently, people in Dubai don’t like The Flintstones, but people in Abu Dhabi dooo. Woods duly rolled in his birdie to take the lead for the first time, joining Lawrie at nine under. Some Neanderthal yelled: "Tiiiigerrrr!” It should have been: “Wilmaaaa!”
Woods found a fairway bunker at the 13th and then sent an arcing fade right at the flag. It cleared a giant bunker defending the green, and he made par with two putts from 20 feet. His confidence to take on hero shots is back. Woods took giant strides up the slight hill to the green. He had that face on again. The one that says: “I am the Man.” Meanwhile his caddie, Joe LaCava, like Woods’s rivals, had to play catch-up after stopping to chat with a spectator with an American accent who asked if he had tickets to see the Giants in the Super Bowl. “I’m workin’ on it,” LaCava said. He probably knows someone he works with who can score a couple of tickets to a luxury suite.
Many people have said that Woods’s aura is not what it was, but Rock would beg to differ. “Not sure how much sleep I’ll get,” he said when asked how he felt about playing with Tiger for the first time. “I think when I’ve made decent contact on the first hole, hopefully then I’ll start playing the game properly.”
Rock sounded like a man preparing for defeat, but what if he could win? “It would be beyond anything that I thought I could do,” said the 34-year-old, whose first career victory came at the Italian Open last year.
Not surprisingly, Woods didn’t know much about Rock. One has his initials on his cap, the other doesn’t even wear one, preferring to let his beautifully coiffured bouffant bob in the breeze. No one mentioned to Woods that Rock used to be a teaching pro at a driving range called Swingers. Insert your own Tiger gag here.
Woods joked that he was glad to get rid of McIlroy, who will play in the second-to-last group on Sunday with Lawrie and Molinari. McIlroy said he joked with Woods, “No one will be following me anymore.” Kidding aside, McIlroy knows he needs a fast start.
“Tiger will be bringing the crowds with him,” McIlroy said. “Maybe I can quietly go along about my business and pick up a few shots ahead of them.”
There are 12 players within four shots of the lead, but Hank Haney, Wood’s former swing coach, has no doubt who will be crowned champion.
“Tiger will win tomorrow, virtually impossible for him not to make at least 4-5 birdies on that course and he doesn’t have to hit driver,” Haney said via Twitter. And Haney should know. He could probably write a book about his six years with Woods. Oh, wait a second.