CHASKA, Minn. (AP) — The coronation of Tiger Woods turned into a contest Saturday at the PGA Championship.
What had looked so inevitable – Woods with a four-shot lead on the weekend at a major – suddenly became filled with possibilities as his margin vanished along the back nine at Hazeltine.
Only a late birdie by Woods and a lone bogey from Padraig Harrington gave the final major a familiar look.
Woods, playing it safe to avoid throwing away shots, wound up with a 1-under 71 and had a two-shot lead over Harrington and Y.E. Yang. That left Woods one round away from capturing his 15th major, with more company than anyone expected.
“The narrower the gap, the better,” Harrington said.
But it’s still a gap. The advantage still belongs to Woods.
He has never lost a major when he was leading going into the final round.
Only once in his career – nine years ago – had he lost any tournament when leading by two shots or more.
His conservative play allowed his lead to be cut in half. Woods found little wrong with that.
“I didn’t give myself a lot of looks at putts,” he said. “I was lag putting a lot. Given the conditions and my position in the tournament, I didn’t mind it.”
The only fist pump Woods delivered on a blustery afternoon came on the short par-4 14th. He hit 3-wood to the back of the green, chipped so poorly that it ran through the green and against the collar, then used the blade of his sand wedge to knock in a 15-foot birdie putt that allowed him to regain the lead.
He finished at 8-under 208, ending his round just as the rain arrived in Minnesota for the first time all week.
Harrington surged into a share of the lead with four birdies over an eight-hole stretch in the middle of the round, catching Woods with a 7-foot birdie putt on the 14th. Right when it appeared they would be in the final pairing for the second straight week, the Irishman made his only bogey on the third round on the last hole by hitting over the green.
He wound up with a 69, and much greater hopes of defending his PGA title.
“If I have to take four shots and I’ve taken two the first day, I suppose we’re halfway there,” Harrington said. “Obviously, to get a win, you’ve got to beat him by three tomorrow. That’s a tall order. But as I said, everybody in the situation who is behind is going to think, ‘Well, we have nothing to lose.’ You’ve got to have that attitude.”
Harrington’s bogey put him at 6-under 210 and in the second-to-last group.
Woods will play with Yang, who matched the best round of the tournament with a 67. Yang won his first PGA Tour event earlier this year at the Honda Classic, although the 37-year-old from South Korea is better known for taking down Woods at the HSBC Champions in China three years ago.
They weren’t playing in the same group in 2006, however. And this will be Yang’s first time contending in a major.
“It will be my first time playing with him, so I’ll try not to go over par,” he said with a smile. “But I’ve been looking forward to it. I’ve thought about playing with Tiger recently. Surprised it came true so fast.”
Woods’ four-shot lead was his largest in a major after 36 holes since he led by four at St. Andrews in 2005. Just like that British Open, his margin was cut to two shots going into the final round.
Suddenly, there are other challengers to try to stop Woods from winning his 15th career major, and first of the year.
Henrik Stenson, who captured The Players Championship in May, had a 68 and was in the group at 4-under 212 along with U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover (71).
Ernie Els pulled within one shot of the lead until he finished with three straight bogeys, leaving him with a 70 and five shots behind. He was disgusted with the end of his round, although the Big Easy spoke for so many others about the outlook Sunday.
Woods has never been beaten at a major when leading. But at least they have a chance.
“You could really feel that there’s a real championship going on around you,” Els said. “It’s not a runaway deal. Looked like a runaway thing at the end of yesterday. But it looks like the guys are really set to give Tiger a go, and the crowd could sense that.”
Woods, however, has a major advantage.
He has never lost in America when leading by more than one shot, and the only time anyone beat him from that position was Ed Fiori at the 1996 Quad City Classic, when Woods was a 20-year-old playing his third event as a pro.
Lee Westwood came from two shots behind to beat Woods in the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Germany in 2000.
Woods appeared to be on his way when he stuffed a short iron into 4 feet for birdie on the second hole. Then came a three-putt bogey on the par-3 fourth, which he left woefully short. He missed the fairway on three par 5s, which he could have reached in two from the fairway. Instead, he was aiming away from trouble, not willing to give away shots.
On this day, everyone was taking their best shot.
“I thought it was going to be playing a little bit more difficult today, but it wasn’t,” Woods said. “I just felt that with my lead, I erred on the side of caution most of the time. If I did have a good look at it, I took aim right at it. Otherwise, I was just dumping the ball on the green and two-putting.”
The lead shrank quickly.
Glover pulled within two shots until he was slowed by a poor bunker shot on No. 10.
Harrington made his second straight birdie with a 20-foot putt on the par-3 eighth, rolled in a 6-foot birdie on the 11th and made a few solid par saves along the way to stay close to Woods. He caught him at the 14th, then tried to get to the clubhouse without any damage. He almost made it, but caught a flyer out of the rough and over the 18th green.
Woods looked as though he couldn’t wait to get off the course, either. After his lone back-nine birdie at No. 14, he hit a terrible pitch at the par-5 15th that came up 40 feet short. He pulled a 7-iron over the 16th green near a TV tower. His hand came flying off the club on his tee shot at the par-3 17th. And when he finally gave himself a birdie chance at the 18th, he missed it badly.
Solace came from seeing his name atop the leaderboard. And he wasn’t about to trade that position with anyone.
Asked if he would have enjoyed playing Harrington on Sunday, Woods smiled.
“Well, no,” he said. “Because if I was, I’d have a one-shot lead.”