RORY McILROY has returned from the heart of darkness but Tiger Woods served notice at Doral that he's ready, willing and able to embark on another era of domination in global golf.
Woods broke several career records established during his pomp around the turn of the century as he loped into a four strokes lead over Graeme McDowell with a third round 67 at the Cadillac Championship.
Never before in his life has Tiger taken as few as 74 putts through 54 holes; while his haul of 24 birdies in the first three rounds on The Blue Monster also is unprecedented.
No matter how hard the wind is forecast to blow in the fourth round, Woods has played and putted so solidly at Doral, it's asking a lot of his closest challenger McDowell to come from four behind and deny Tiger a 17th World Golf Championship title. Yet McDowell has history on his side. Trailing Woods by four going into Sunday at Tiger's own Chevron World Challenge in 2011, the doughty Portrush man hunted down his vaunted opponent on home ground before beating him in sudden death.
The Ulsterman showed he has the stomach for a fight as he posted two spectacular eagles and recovered from a couple of severe mid-round jolts to post a three-under par 69.
This eased him one clear of Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker and clinched another eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Tiger in the fourth round.
McDowell began his third round with a bang, holing a 20 foot putt for eagle three at Doral's first hole. Though Woods opened with three straight birdies, he couldn't shake off his tenacious 33-year-old rival.
A birdie at three and another at six earned McDowell a share of the lead after Tiger made bogey out of deep rough to the right of six.
"I don't think I can hit the golf ball any better than I did for the first 10 holes," said McDowell.
Yet the calm resolve he'd shown during the first two and a half rounds was sorely shaken when he three-putted for a frustrating par five after brilliantly reaching the putting surface at 10 in two.
One clear after a tidy birdie four at eight, Woods had appeared to be in trouble after driving into a fairway bunker at 10 but, after laying-up, he got up and down smartly from 101 yards for a four which McDowell must have felt like a punch in the solar plexus.
The pain was compounded at 11 when a streak of 46 holes without a bogey, the longest in McDowell's career on Tour, came to an unceremonious end as he made five out of a greenside bunker.
It looked grim for the Northern Irishman when he duffed his chip from the rough behind the green on his way to the double-bogey six at 14 which left him half a dozen off the pace.
Yet never count-out the 2010 US Open champ. McDowell rebounded with a brilliant chip-in from the fringe for an eagle two at 16.
Tiger was unlucky when his tee shot lodged up palm tree at 17, leading to a bogey. After McDowell made a fantastic two putt from 85 feet for an unlikely par at the last, Woods then stepped one stroke closer to his first WGC win since the 2009 Bridgestone by holing-out from 16 feet for birdie at 18. "Tiger was very solid today," said McDowell. "Very impressive in the way he controlled his golf ball. It wasn't like 'wow', it was just really, solidly good and impressive." Having seen Woods standing at the back of the room, the Portrush man hastily concluded "Okay, that's enough of that" … much to Tiger's amusement. They touched knuckles in friendly greeting as McDowell walked past him on the way out.
McIlroy admitted after his third round 71 that "my confidence probably was the lowest it's ever been" during the seven days which followed last Friday week's meltdown at the Honda Classic.
"But after putting in all the hard work I have and knowing that I'm going in the right direction, I feel a lot better now," added McIlroy, who goes into today's final round tied 30th on three-under with Lee Westwood. "This time last week, I was standing on the range at The Bear's Club grinding my ass off trying to find a swing that worked," he added. "So to practice it and put it into play here and actually see some good results has put me in a much better place." McIlroy's ball-striking certainly is getting back to its best but having lavished so much attention on his long game, the 23-year-old's short game and putting have suffered.
This helps explain his loose wedge play at Doral and the five three-putts which kept him out of the top-20 and well off Tiger's heels at the Cadillac Championship.
McIlroy is so encouraged by the progress he's made in recent days that he's decided not to add another event to his pre-Masters schedule. So he'll have just one more outing before Augusta, next month's Shell Houston Open.
Padraig Harrington's upward graph at this Championship continued with a third-round 68 which left him tied 41st on even par.
Harrington might have missed a four-footer at 18 for a sixth birdie of the day but by extending his run without a three-putt here to 54 holes, the Dubliner boosted his confidence on the greens.