BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — Tiger Woods displayed his full repertoire of near-miss reactions: the putter flip, the 360-degree spin with head to the sky, the drop to his knees, and head bowed with hands on knees.
His mammoth gallery settled on just one way to react: the very loud moan.
That’s what happens when the host of the tournament has six birdie putts that stop less than a foot from the hole and two more that settle less than 2 feet away. Woods’ 69 Saturday at the AT&T National looks boring on the surface — 15 pars and only two birdies — but the sights and sounds told the story of a round that was inches away from being something spectacular.
“I turned a 63 or 64 into a 69 very smoothly,” Woods said.
For Woods to win the inaugural version of his own PGA Tour event, he’ll have to stage the biggest final-day comeback of his pro career. He’s never won when trailing by more than five strokes after the third round, but he’s currently at 2 under for the tournament — seven shots behind leader Stuart Appleby.
“It’s frustrating, it really is,” Woods said. “There’s no denying that. When you hit good putts and you think they are looking dead center, they kind of wander left or right, it is frustrating. And that’s the way it goes sometimes. You have to be patient, which I was all day. I’m still in the ballgame.”
Many groups behind the Woods hoopla, Stuart Appleby roller-coastered his way to a two-stroke lead. The Aussie, playing with a hairline crack in his driver, made five birdies and three bogeys in a 2-under round of 68 for a 201 total, putting him in position to win the event that bears the name of his good friend and neighbor in Orlando, Fla.
“I’m not concerned who honors an event or who titles an event or anything,” said Appleby, seeking his ninth tour victory and first of 2007. “Because winning, once you’ve won or had a drought, it feels great. And not winning feels a little shallow and empty. So if I could join all the good feelings in winning and with Tiger, his inaugural event — I’m sure I’ll let him know. He’ll be back at me, trust me. He’s got a quick tongue.”
Second-place K.J. Choi is two strokes off the lead. Choi trailed Appleby by five following a bogey at the 14th, but birdied the next three holes to shoot a 70 on a hot and humid afternoon at Congressional Country Club.
Steve Stricker shot a 67 and is three strokes behind Appleby. Mike Weir, who also carded 67, is four off the lead in fourth.
After a tough day putting in a round of 73 on Thursday, Woods weighted down his putting with lead tape and rebounded with a 66 on Friday. On Saturday, the putter was on the tantalizing verge of brilliance: A 6-footer lipped out at No. 3, an 11-footer at No. 4 died right on the edge, and an 18-footer at No. 15 had Woods swearing out loud after it skirted the hole.
Woods’ frustration showed again at the 18th, when he had his only bogey of the day. He made two angry swipes with his club after driving his tee shot into the left rough. His only birdies came at Nos. 1 and 16 — and the 20-footer at the first hole was his longest made putt of the day.
“He played fantastic tee-to-green and really seemed to putt well — and holed nothing,” said Woods’ playing partner, Kevin Stadler, who also shot a 69 and had a hole-in-one at the par-3 13th. “I’m sure he’ll be excited looking forward to tomorrow because if he had another inch it would have been 62, 63, or 64.”
Appleby had a tournament-low two bogeys after his first 36 holes, but he was more erratic Saturday. For every breathtaking iron shot — such as the approach to 5 feet at No. 3 — there was a hole such as No. 12, when he found the rough with his tee shot and three-putted for a bogey. There were also the par saves, which included the nervy 10-foot putt at the 18th that kept his two-shot lead.
“It was a demanding golf course today,” Appleby said. “There was a little bit more respect to be had, watching for the balls to be bouncing off the fairways and running with the contours a little bit more.”
Then, at the 16th tee box, Appleby discovered a barely visible hairline fracture in his driver. A rules official declared the club was not “substantially unfit” and therefore could remain in Appleby’s bag — which is a good thing for him because he likes the way it is striking the ball. Besides, he didn’t bring a backup driver to this tournament.
“I could have 50 more shots in it. I could have one,” Appleby said. “Probably makes better sense to probably see if I can rustle one up.”
Divots: Shigeki Maruyama shot a 65, the best round of the tournament so far. He is 3 under for the tournament, six shots off the lead. … Appleby is the only player to shoot under par in each of the first three rounds. … Woods’ biggest final-round comeback was at Pebble Beach in 2000, when he won after trailing by five strokes at the end of 54 holes.