DORAL, Fla. — On Sunday, make sure to set your clocks ahead an hour and your time machine back a decade or more. Tiger Woods looks primed for a monster year.
In January, he won at Torrey Pines for the 75th time as a pro. On Sunday, he'll win at Doral for the fourth time. Next month at Augusta, he'll win the Masters for the fifth time. Who's going to beat him?
Well, a bunch of people could beat him — your Rory McIlroy, your Louis Oosthuizen, even your Phil Mickelson, looking trim and playing well. But the point is, as we have seen for three rounds at Doral, in the Cadillac Championship, Tiger is no longer in the business of beating himself. For the past four years, his main problem — golf-wise, that is — has been putting. There have been other problems: a swing in a state of flux, injuries, an ex-wife getting a big chunk of the fortune his golf made. But the main issue has been putting.
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At Doral, on pretty flat, but wickedly fast, windswept greens, he has putted like a madman. He has putted like he used to putt, so decisively and so aggressively. He has made about six miles of putts here, and he looks great doing it.
OK, yes, reality check: Tiger Woods has not won the Doral event yet. But after stress-free rounds of 66, 65 and 67 on the par-72 course, once called the Blue Monster but now close to a desert-style pushover, he has a four-shot lead over Graeme McDowell and a five-shot advantage over Mickelson and Steve Stricker. Nobody who has a tee time after high noon tomorrow, when the South Florida trade winds will be at their strongest, is going to go crazy low.
On Sunday, for the first time all week, the winds will really blow, 70 will be a great score and grinding it out with low, smart shots — the old Woods specialty — will carry the day. McDowell and Woods are last off at 2:40 p.m. (Welcome to Daylight Savings Time. The golf season's here. You can get in an emergency nine after work again.) Tiger's not going for 75 tomorrow. When he won at Torrey Pines, he closed with a 72, playing about as poorly as he can play, frustrated by the pace of play and seemingly anxious to get his first win of 2013, especially after missing the cut in Abu Dhabi. Here he seems not to have a care in the world. At one point on Saturday, he was twirling his putter like a baton while walking to the green. He was singing that Carpenters hit from yesteryear, "Top of the World."
Even when he lost a ball in a palm on 17 on Saturday, he didn't look that perturbed, which was almost weird. Somebody handed him some binoculars, he identified the mark on his ball from terra firma, he played on as the rules require with a one-shot penalty and he grinded out a bogey. He came back on 18 with a fade tee shot, a hold-it-against the wind approach shot, a nothing-but-net birdie putt and a fist pump that was modest by his old standards but a pump nonetheless.
Tiger almost never loses with a 54-hole lead — he's 50 for 54 when leading or co-leading — and he has never lost with a four-shot lead. Poor McDowell. He knows he's not beating him.
In the interview room on Saturday night, McDowell was asked when he last saw Tiger playing this well.
"Kind of hard to answer these with him in the room," McDowell said. He laughed, and Woods, standing at the back of the room, laughed too. "He was very solid today, very impressive the way he controlled his golf ball — it was like, `Wow.' It was just really solidly good and impressive."
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McDowell looked up, realizing the hole he was digging was getting deeper and deeper. He shrugged, shook his head, laughed and said, "OK, that's enough of that."
Good luck, Phil. Good luck, Stricks. NBC is depending in you. The network's ratings are down, and they need a show.
Woods is thinking big. On Sunday he'll be thinking about Doral. On Monday he'll be thinking about Augusta. He was asked on Saturday night if he can be just as good as he was in 2000.
"I don't want to be as good," Woods said, dead-cold sober. "I want to be better."