Sunday 21 January 2018

Woods in contention after six under 66 as McIlroy struggles

Tiger Woods walks to the 18th green during the third round of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship
Tiger Woods walks to the 18th green during the third round of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship

Kevin Garside

A white hot Saturday was the prelude to an early bath last Sunday so it would, perhaps, be premature to invest too much in the Tiger Woods power surge at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

Nevertheless it remains a thing of wonder to see the Woods yo-yo on an upward trajectory, eight birdies in a 66 making mincemeat of the recalibrated Blue Monster.

At the other end of the joy scale, Rory McIlroy crossed paths with Woods on the way down, a chipped birdie at the last offering little consolation on an afternoon blighted by a pair of sevens en route to a 75. McIlroy was in the water at the eighth, from the middle of the fairway, and again at the tenth, shipping four shots to par in the process.

At one point during his second round on windswept Friday, Woods was haemorrhaging at seven over par, ten shots adrift. Injuries notwithstanding, few in the history of the game have applied teeth to bit like Woods and thus did he carve his way through the field to sit fourth on one under par, within three of Patrick Reed’s lead.

The conditions, it must be noted, were closer to the seasonal norm than the opening two days, when the wind made a lottery of this course. Heavy overnight watering took the concrete out of the greens making the pins easier to chase. Jimmy Walker earlier shot a 67 to show what could be done before Woods bowled in to raised the standard further with the low round of the week.

The back trouble that took him out of the equation at the Honda Classic 13 holes into his final round gets progressively sore and requires round-the-clock treatment, he said, but there are no plans yet to call a taxi. Woods described this round as his most complete of the year eclipsing the 65 he shot a week ago at PGA National.

“It was nice to get back in the tournament again.  I held it together yesterday, a long day, tough day and that gave me a chance today. I figured, hey, I'm only six back, that's definitely doable, especially with the conditions and how difficult this golf course is playing.  If I just get back to even par for the tournament, I'll be right there and I did one better.”

It was all going so well for McIlroy, too, just one off the lead when he pulled his approach into the lake beside the eighth. It wasn’t even close to staying dry. Two holes later he was five adrift and reeling. At least his playing partner held up, Jamie Donaldson carding a 71 for a share of fourth place with Woods.

“It was a tough day,” McIlroy said. “Hitting two balls in the water, I didn't play the par 5s well at all.  Played those in 4 over.  So when you do that around here, you're sort of putting yourself behind the 8 ball a little bit. It was still a bit of a grind out there.”

Luke Donald brought to Doral a growing optimism about the state of his game, which he claims is maturing nicely following the swing changes begun seven months ago under the influence of new coach Chuck Cook.

A steep fall from the top of the world rankings to 24 in the space of 19 months, having spent more than 200 weeks of his career in the top ten is, he believes, in arrest. We can disregard the 82 posted on Friday in conditions likened by Graeme McDowell to a day at the Open Championship when the wind is up.

Donald was one off the lead after his opening 70 and delivering the club to the ball in a manner that better reflected his upbeat commentary. Excuse the jargon. The drilling into detail is the golfer’s comfort of first resort in times of difficulty. “I'm feeling much more confident with trajectory and my swing plane is really good. I'm standing my posture a lot better than I used to,” he said.

“I still have a little bit where I want to hit it with my hands and I've just got to keep working on rotating through the ball and hitting it with my body and trusting it.  So it's getting very close. I'm hitting a lot of shots that I'm really excited about. The last two weeks, my short game has been great, too, though, and making some putts. It's nice to have all parts come together.”

Donald was back in the zone yesterday, bringing his ball home in a level par 72. This reconfigured course is too difficult to take apart even when the wind drops. His progress will please Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, who will have some testing choices to make come September if the core of Europe’s recent success is to be retained.

Two groups ahead of Donald Lee Westwood was pressing through the same phase of the endless cycle for improvement, slowly piecing together the elements of a game that is still formidable when tuned. Westwood shot a two-under-par 70, the chip at the last, dead from 90ft, another example of his flourishing short game.

McGinley will need them both in his team and playing well to have any chance of maintaining Europe’s hold on the trophy. The prospect of missing out is a real one and something Donald is ready to confront just yet. “A tournament like this, a win here, win a major, and you're in,” he said. “I don't want to panic. I just want to keep playing well. How I feel about where my game is going, if I keep playing like I know I can play, then it will take care of itself. ”

About his round, Donald added: “My goal was to shoot below the temperature, which was forecast to be 74, so I did that. Friday wasn’t too bad, an anomaly really. A few bad shots at the wrong time and a couple that were pretty good that caught a slope on the green and rolled into the water. In cross winds this course is on the edge, good shots are being penalised, which is a bit unfortunate. In conditions like today it’s manageable.”

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