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Tiger Woods lurking near Doral lead

3/9/2014 - Golf Tiger Woods

DORAL, Fla. -- The drive on one of Doral's most feared holes looked very much like the old days for Tiger Woods, the kind that soared through the air and hung seemingly forever before landing in the short grass and rolling out to an obscene length, the outcome never in doubt.

When it came to rest, Woods' ball had traveled 325 yards at the Blue Monster's finishing hole, the kind of shot that used to be routine, that used to elicit gasps from galleries and feelings of demoralization from fellow competitors.

These days, Woods doesn't hit that shot with enough regularity to scare anyone, and an abundance of players can send a golf ball into orbit, making the distance advantage he once enjoyed no longer such an asset.

But Woods still possesses plenty of skills, and they were on full display Saturday during the third round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral. His 66 was his best overall round of the year, and it was the lowest score of the tournament. And it gave him an opportunity to win Sunday, as he trails third-round leader Patrick Reed by 3 strokes.

"I hit it good today," Woods said after climbing the leaderboard into contention. "I feel like my swing is coming around, which is nice. I just need to get healthy enough to where I can put the club in that position. When I feel good, I can put it there. It's nice."

And therein lies his plight: getting healthy, and hitting the driver with consistency.

Quite clearly the back problems of the past week raise concerns beyond his immediate ability to hit a golf ball. As they pertain to the next month and his quest for that elusive 15th major title, they certainly do not help.

Woods, as we've learned in a slow start to 2014, took it easy in the offseason, hoping to avoid the back issues and fatigue that plagued him toward the end of the 2013 PGA Tour season.

The plan meant a rough start to the year, with poor performances at Torrey Pines and Dubai raising concern. March was to be the time to get ready for Augusta, with three Florida tournaments, two where he was the defending champion. Then the back spasms arrived, and talking about winning the Masters seemed foolish.

As good as Saturday's performance was, not much has changed. It was one good round, and Woods has yet to put two in a row together. That obviously will be imperative to win his 80th PGA Tour event Sunday, as well as the big one he wants next month in Georgia.

Likewise, finding the fairway with some regularity is crucial. One good drive on the 18th hole Saturday does not suggest a trend, and Woods did find the short grass off the tee just eight times. But the misses were manageable and he hit 14 greens in regulation. It really all starts there.

"As far as most complete round, absolutely," Woods said. "I hit the ball a lot better than I did at Honda last Saturday. This was certainly a better round."

Then there is that aching back. Woods offers few specifics, other than he's been getting treatment every day. He certainly looked like all was fine Saturday, but then, the same could be said about a week ago, too.

Asked if he is able to go through the round without thinking about his back, Woods said no. And that, seemingly, is something he will have to deal with going forward.

Also an obstacle is the type of player he competes against today. Hunter Mahan, who is 2 strokes back of Reed and paired with Woods on Sunday, has played with the No. 1-ranked golfer numerous times and said his presence doesn't add any angst.

"You're not going to change anything," Mahan said. "You can't really do anything different. You've just got to keep playing golf. There's plenty of other guys to worry about."

That is a departure from years gone by, when competitors clearly feared Woods and often altered their games, playing right into his hands.

Reed has little experience in this position, never having played in a major championship and competing in just his second World Golf Championship event. But since Woods won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August, Reed has won twice on the PGA Tour, including the Humana Challenge in January.

"Whenever he's close to the lead, he's a guy you have to watch out for," said Reed, who is ranked 44th in the world and listed Woods in his player bio as part of his dream foursome. "But at the same time, I have to go and just play my own game. I was playing with Dustin Johnson today and I could have gotten into a situation where I started to play 'who could hit the ball the farthest,' and I would have lost that battle every time.

"But I stayed in my rhythm, stayed in my golf game and my game plan, and that's why I'm sitting here with the lead because I'm not getting ahead of myself and not trying to play against other people, just playing my own game."

It's a sound strategy, one that will serve him well Sunday, especially having to watch Woods play a group ahead. No doubt, the galleries will be big, the commotion unlike anything he's seen.

That is what Woods brings to the occasion, and here we are after a week of tumult talking about his chances to win. In retrospect, his 73 on Friday afternoon in treacherous conditions should have been a sign this was coming. He played beautifully down the stretch, and continued it Saturday in an 8-birdie, 25-putt effort.

Of course, not everything was perfect. After that 325-yard drive? Woods had just 132 yards to the pin -- and hit it 114. "I just fatted it," Woods said.

The ball barely got to the green, leaving him 55 feet from the hole.

It was a poor shot, but certainly not enough to ruin a strong day, his best of the year. And yet, it showed there remains plenty of work to do.