Charlie Wi leads, but Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will be main attraction on Sunday

February 12, 2012

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Expect a compelling Sunday at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

The leaderboard going into the finale features the likable underdog, Charlie Wi, who is 15 under and has been unflappable through 54 holes. He’ll try to hold off Ken Duke at 12 under, Tiger Woods at 11 under, and five players at nine under, including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, who won here in 2009 and 2010. Woods and Mickelson will play together, teeing off at 12:28 p.m. Eastern. It doesn’t get much better.

The spotlight on Saturdays at the Pro-Am usually shines more brightly on the A-list celebrities in the event, with cameras focused on George Lopez, Ray Romano, Bill Belichick, Andy Garcia and, of course, Bill Murray and his antics. On Saturday, Murray’s ridiculous costume, which was peculiarly reminiscent of the camouflage he donned as Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, stole the show.

Murray entertained the crowd as usual. After hitting a nice drive on No. 2, he punted a football into the crowd — not a bad kick, I might add.

The main focus, however, was on Woods, who was due for a low score. After two rounds of bombed drives down nearly every fairway and solid approach shots onto almost every green, it was only a matter of time before his putts started to fall.

There were fewer jokes and smiles between Woods and the rest of his group, which included his amateur partner, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, as well as Arjun Atwal and his amateur partner, Danny Lane. Conditions on Saturday were tougher, with the wind blowing steadily at Pebble Beach and the weather changing constantly. It switched between rain and sun six or seven times during the third round. On Friday, Woods said he knew he had to shoot a low number Saturday to give himself a chance to win on Sunday. He didn’t waste much time. Woods started on the back nine and bogeyed the par-3 12th before firing five birdies in the next six holes.

He added another birdie on the par-5 second hole but finished with seven straight pars to shoot five-under 67. As Woods walked to the scoring trailer after his round, the fans were five deep on each side of the walkway, cheering for him and Romo.

“Today was key just for me getting off to a good start to settle Tiger’s nerves a little,” quipped Romo, a scratch handicap, who rolled in five birdies.

The duo posted a 19-under total despite getting no strokes to make the cut and advance to the fourth round.

Woods didn’t hit the ball nearly as well as he had the first two rounds, but he scored with a little help from his putter.

“I made some more putts, and really managed my game well today,” said Woods, who hasn’t won a full-field tournament since the 2009 Australian Masters and hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since the 2009 BMW Championship. “I missed in all the right spots, and even though my game was slightly off today, it’s not as off as it used to be, which is very good.”

After a miserable and soggy second nine at Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s Shore Course on Friday, Woods complained about the “bumpy” greens and said he wasn’t leaving himself in ideal spots on the greens. But he hit 11 of 13 fairways and 16 of 18 greens, and all signs indicated that he was close to putting the pieces together and was feeling comfortable with the swing changes made with swing coach Sean Foley.

Atwal, a good friend and frequent practice round partner, played despite having a strained back because he didn’t want to bail on Tiger. He offered his assessment of Woods’s new swing after the first round Thursday, saying it was “a lot better” than it was under Hank Haney and that Woods’s misses were not as far offline as they used to be.

Woods echoed the same sentiment in his post-round press conference on Saturday.

“As far as this model that I'm swinging in now, I understand it,” he said. “When my days are bad or I'm off, it's not that far off. You know, that's the beauty of it. That's why I enjoyed working with Sean and what we are doing. That's the exciting part about it, is that the ball just doesn't move as much as it used to.”

Meanwhile, Charlie Wi, one of the last players to stick with the stack-and-tilt swing method, posted an impressive three-under 69 at Spyglass Hill, the toughest of the three-course rotation in the most challenging conditions of the week.

Anything under par is always solid at Spyglass, but when it’s 50 degrees and breezy and you have the lead with Woods and Mickelson lurking? It’s very good.

Wi is playing his 163rd PGA Tour start and still looking for his first Tour victory, but since turning 40 in January, he said his self-confidence has never been higher.

As Wi and his caddie, Mark Urbanek, were reading a 40-foot putt for birdie on No. 12, Wi said, “Time to roll one of these in here, buddy.”

It did indeed go in.

Now the question is whether Wi will be able to hold his nerve on Sunday. He’s been open with the press about “fighting off demons” from past experiences. Perhaps playing with journeyman Duke in the last tee time on Sunday will take some of the pressure off.

After all, the fans at Pebble and at home will be focused on the penultimate group of Woods and Mickelson.