DORAL, Fla. (AP) — Hunter Mahan was cruising along at Doral, stretching his lead to four shots, when he stumbled on a couple of holes coming in and suddenly his lead was down to one shot at the Cadillac Championship.
And just like that, the dynamics of this World Golf Championship changed.
It wasn’t the size of his lead that suddenly makes the tournament feel tight. It was the name of the guy right behind him.
Martin Kaymer is No. 1 in the world, and he’s playing like it.
The 26-year-old “Germanator” might not win every week, but he seems to give himself a chance. If you don’t see his name on the leaderboard, wait a few minutes and it will show up.
It was like that for Lee Westwood when he took over the top ranking last November. It was like that for Vijay Singh toward the end of 2004 and early in 2005. And it was like that for Tiger Woods for the better part of a decade.
Mahan had to settle for a 1-under 71 and was at 9-under 135 on the Blue Monster, looking formidable the way he is hitting so many greens. Kaymer hung around all afternoon, not making any mistakes, throwing in a few birdies on the par 5s and wound up with a 70. He was one shot behind, along with Francesco Molinari, who had a 68.
Rory McIlroy is two shots out of the lead, and that’s not what concerns him.
“Even though Hunter is a couple of shots ahead of me, to give Martin a stroke lead is going to be pretty tough to sort of keep up with him,” McIlroy said.
Mahan isn’t worried by this.
If anything, he was bothered by the way he finished. At one point he had a four-shot lead and hardly anything was going wrong. Then came a long three-putt for bogey on the 14th, followed by a tee shot that led to tree trouble and a bogey on the 16th.
Suddenly, the lead was down to one, although Mahan looked at the bright side.
“I hit a lot of good shots, just didn’t finish as strong as I would have hoped,” he said. “But pretty happy with where I am.”
Mahan’s late slip didn’t just bring Kaymer into the mix.
McIlroy, Matt Kuchar and Nick Watney were only two shots behind. They were followed by the likes of Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott and Riviera winner Aaron Baddeley. Then came defending champion Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Steve Stricker and Luke Donald, the world No. 3 who is coming off a win at the Match Play.
It’s the kind of leaderboard expected from a World Golf Championship. Fourteen players were separated by four shots.
It just didn’t include Tiger Woods. Or Phil Mickelson, for that matter.
Woods again struggled with his putter, missing four birdie putts inside 10 feet and looking bad at the end. A pair of 6-foot birdie attempts at the 16th and 18th holes never had much of a chance and he wound up with a 74, nine shots behind.
Even so, the lasting image of Woods will be a pair of tee shots.
He hit a smother hook with the driver on the second hole, which traveled only 122 yards – about the same distance he typically hits a sand wedge. Then came a pop-up on the 14th hole and a 188-yard drive.
“It’s pretty tough not to giggle,” U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said about Woods’ tee shot on No. 2. “We all hit bad shots. Hit a couple of those in my time. The guy is working on his golf swing, and every now and again, you have a few weird ones in there.”
When someone suggested he didn’t appear to be having fun, Woods didn’t look like he was having fun answering the question.
“You’re not going to have a lot of fun when you’re nine back,” he said. “I don’t know if a lot of people are very happy with that.”
Mickelson dropped three shots when he returned to finish the storm-delayed first round, including two shots in the water on the par-5 eighth for a double bogey that led to 73. He was slightly better in the second round with a 71.
McDowell called a penalty on himself when he noticed the ball move during his putting stroke on the ninth. That gave him a 73, and he was still eight shots behind.
Woods and Mickelson will be paired Saturday, the first time they have ever been in the same group for three straight rounds. They could be just a warmup act, however, being so far out of contention.
Mahan had a chance to beat Kaymer at the Match Play until losing a late lead. Even so, he couldn’t help but notice that the German is playing like the world No. 1.
“It’s quite impressive, his run,” Mahan said. “He seems mentally tough and I think that’s what separates him. And he’s a great putter. But he’s playing great. He’s actually winning, and that’s what sets the good players and great players apart.”