MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Tiger Woods has been saying since he first showed up on the PGA Tour that he plays only to win.
Lately, he has been making just as many headlines when he loses.
In the 268 official tournaments that Woods has played around the world as a pro, he has never gone three consecutive events without winning when he held at least a share of the 36-hole lead.
That streak was in jeopardy Sunday in the Australian Masters, where Woods looked to be in control with a three-shot lead until stumbling to an even-par 72 in the third round to fall into a three-way tie with the Australian duo of Greg Chalmers and James Nitties.
For that, Woods was thankful.
“I played myself into a tie for the lead, and I could have easily played myself straight out of the tournament,” Woods said Saturday. “But I grinded, I hung in there and turned it around. That’s a huge positive.”
He took a lousy session on the practice range onto the course at Kingston Heath, and it never got any better.
Woods blocked a 3-iron on the opening par 5 and failed to make birdie for the first time all week. He came up short of the third green with a wedge and three-putted from the fringe for a bogey. He missed the seventh fairway well to the right, and short-sided himself in a bunker on the eighth, both times making unlikely pars.
The low point came at the 13th, where he was so angry after another shot sailed to the right that he slammed his driver into the ground and it bounced up and into the gallery. A surprised fan caught the club and returned it to him.
“That was my mistake,” Woods said. “I got hot after a bad tee shot and let go of the club.”
The reaction will be far worse if he fails to win the Australian Masters after going into the final round tied with two players who are not among the golf’s elite.
Nitties just finished his rookie season on the PGA Tour and easily kept his card, although he is No. 223 in the world ranking. Chalmers, who hasn’t won in Australia in 11 years, also finished among the top 100 on the PGA Tour money list and is No. 194 in the world. His goal this year was not to return to Q-school.
Two shots behind them were Jason Dufner and Cameron Percy.
Woods was the 36-hole leader at the Tour Championship only to be passed in the third round by Kenny Perry and beaten in the final round by Phil Mickelson. Then came the HSBC Champions last week in Shanghai, where Woods was tied with Nick Watney after 36 holes, both were passed by Mickelson and Lefty went on to win again.
In the Australian Masters, where Woods faced lesser competition, he has far more to lose.
Of his six victories this year, the easiest might have been the Buick Open. He had the lead going into the final round, but 12 of the 13 players within five shots of the lead were ranked outside the top 100. He had more to gain than he did to lose.
When that was mentioned to Woods after he won by three shots, he agreed.
“Plus, you had a golf course where anyone could get hot and go low,” he said at the time.
That probably won’t be the case at Kingston Heath, which can be difficult to navigate in only a slight breeze. This is old-style golf, more about angles than power. Whenever Woods missed a shot over the first two days, he at least missed on the right side. Not so on Saturday, when he had to work for pars and dropped two shots, usually by hitting in the one place he couldn’t.
“I hit some really good shots out there, but also I hit some terrible golf shots,” Woods said. “It was either-or. There was no gray area. I didn’t really have any borderline shots.”
Chalmers and Nitties don’t have the pedigree, which is not to suggest they are incapable.
Nitties played bogey-free in the third round, although he cringed after so many putts that burned the edge of the cup. Chalmers rolled in some big putts in the middle of his round to take the lead, only to give it back with two short misses at the end.
They were at 10-under 206 and will be in the final group before a hometown crowd.
The gallery has turned out in record numbers this week, their first chance to see Woods in Australia since 1998, no guarantee of seeing him again until the Presidents Cup in 2011 at Royal Melbourne, assuming he qualifies.
No one was sure what to expect in terms of a gallery favorite Sunday.
At a World Golf Championship in Spain a decade ago, Woods battled down the stretch with Miguel Angel Jimenez, and the Spanish gallery cheered when Woods hit a chip into the water on the 17th at Valderrama and made triple bogey. They root for their own in Spain.
Nitties believes the gallery will root for a good show.
“You can hear the roars are huge for Tiger and the roars are huge for us if we hole a putt, which is awesome,” he said. “I wouldn’t like it if everyone was going against Tiger or an American guy or a European guy. Obviously, Tiger gets massive roars because he does special stuff. But the crowd is really hoping that we do well, and hoping that Tiger does well.”
It’s the golfing public that might not go so easy on Woods if he doesn’t win.
Alas, he is not the only one facing such pressure. One online betting agency in Australia was so sure Woods was going to win that it paid out all its bets – $150,000 – after he took a three-shot lead after the second round.