DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — It’s rare a struggling golfer can find answers blowing in the wind. That’s why Tiger Woods couldn’t contain himself after escaping from desert-storm conditions Saturday with an even-par 72 in the third round of the Dubai Desert Classic.
“Yeah, 18 straight pars,” he said, laughing. Actually it was out in 39, back in 33. Woods is seven under par going into the final round, and just one shot off the lead shared by Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, Denmark’s Anders Hansen and South Africa’s Thomas Aiken.
“I was struggling,” Woods admitted. “We were getting gusts and backing off shots. A tough day. I’m still there in the ball game.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Gusts close to 30 mph whipped sand across the course and flinged it into the faces of players and spectators while balls were sent careening off course. With the wind whistling to the right at the first tee, Woods’s opening drive started right and kept going until it was blown into a fairway bunker. Missed fairway. Missed green. Missed putt. Forget about his Dr. Jekyll-like 66 on Friday, Mr. Hyde was back.
Onto the drivable 351-yard, par-4 second. This time Woods’s ball bolted the other way, so far left that it landed just short of the adjacent Nick Faldo-designed course and about 40 yards off-target. Woods pitched up into the light rough at the back of the green, fluffed his chip, dinked another short of the pin and holed for a bogey. Momentum crushed.
Third hole, par 5. This time Woods’s drive sailed straight down the middle. His approach plopped onto the bank in front of the green: chip, putt, birdie. The game is so much easier played from the mown stuff instead of the asparagus. Woods stopped the rot until a bogey at the eighth and then a double bogey at the ninth after dunking his approach into the water to complete a miserable front nine.
True to form, with the wind now in his favor, Woods started back to the shelter of the Emirates Golf Club’s iconic Bedouin tent-style clubhouse with an eagle and a birdie. Woods is nothing if not a fighter. He finished in style, coaxing in a curling downhill 25-foot putt for birdie. Statement made. And he enjoyed his day’s toil.
“Absolutely,” Woods said. “The fact that I was able to battle back from being four over par to put myself in with a chance, I’m proud of that.”
Woods isn’t the only fallen star searching for redemption in Dubai this week. Saturday was also another step in continued resurgence of Sergio Garcia. Remember him? The 31-year-old hasn’t won since the 2009 HSBC Champions tournament in China and spent much of last season AWOL (Absent Without Love). That’s love for the game. He too struggled in the wind and limped home with a three-over-par 75 to be seven under par for the tournament.
The once-ebullient Garcia still looks and sounds like he is carrying the worries of the world on his shoulders. Maybe he needs more weeks like this with his name writ large on the leaderboard to feel like his old self again. Three-over in those gusty conditions Saturday wasn’t terrible, but it could have been so much better. Garcia was eight shots clear of Woods after playing the front nine in 34. Then — bang! — 41 shots to come back. He still could have taken a lead into the final round but drove into a tree at the 17th and made double bogey.
“I hit a great shot,” Garcia said. “I thought I’d find it up near the green.” Not exactly. He found it in a bush and had to take a penalty drop.
“The odds of hitting an eight-inch wide branch of a palm tree are greater than I thought. The good thing is I am still in it,” Garcia said.
The bad thing for him, however, is that he is paired with Woods for the final round and there is no love lost between them.
Overnight leader Rory McIlroy also had a tough day at the office. You would have thought that a young lad who grew up playing on windy links courses in Northern Ireland would have reveled in such conditions. Not this time. His front-nine grind was typified by his third-consecutive bogey. The scene of the crime was the par-5 third. He pushed his drive into the rough, pulled his approach into the front greenside bunker, barely advanced his ball onto the lip, chipped past the flag and two putted for six. Ouch.
McIlroy’s father, Gerry, was following behind the ropes. He was looking forward to watching the big soccer match later in the day between Manchester City (his team) and Manchester United (Rory’s team). But Rory’s score was the cause of his most immediate concern. There were just two birdies in a round of 75 and a total of eight under par.
“Rough start. Steadied the ship,” McIlroy said. “I’m still tied for the lead.”
True, but there are 25 players within four shots of him.
One of those guys to watch is Lee Westwood. The World No. 1 has kept a low profile this week away from the hullabaloo that has surrounded Woods. He plodded along to a 72 on Saturday. He is five under par and just three off the lead. Going quietly about his business is just how the Englishman likes it.