Damien McGrane became a Tiger-slayer for the day when he outscored world No 1 Woods 72-73 to keep his hopes of a maiden European Tour victory alive in the Dubai Desert Classic.
As a reward, the Kells man will get to tee it up with Woods again in today’s final round and on the evidence of his poised third round display, he won’t be in the least bit fazed by the prospect.
While Ernie Els scorched through the field with a seven under par 65 to lead by a stroke from defending champion Henrik Stenson on 11 under par, McGrane came through his battle with the game’s leading player with a story he can tell his grandchildren in years to come.
As Graeme McDowell birdied the last in spectacular fashion for a 69 to share third place with Lee Westwood (68) on eight under par, McGrane’s grinding 72 left him just four strokes off the pace in a six-way tie for fifth with Woods, who shot his first over par round since the second round of the Open Championship at Carnoustie over six months ago.
“I felt Tiger was on my side,” said McGrane of a day when Woods was plagued by trigger-happy photographers inside and outside the ropes. “He had a difficult day and I ground it out, as I do.
“I can see how people would struggle playing with Tiger but he is an inspiration to play with. I found he’s a gentleman, a family man and good fun.”
After carding two birdies and two bogeys apiece, both men were level par for the day playing the par-five 18th before Woods dumped his three-wood approach in the lake fronting the green and took six.
McGrane had a 15 footer to beat the 13-time major winner by two strokes but came up just short with his birdie effort and tapped in for par.
Ranked 318 places behind Woods in the world rankings, McGrane was so focussed on his own game that he initially believed that they had both shot level par 72s
Surprised to hear he had outscored Woods, McGrane said: “What is seldom is wonderful but he’s a far superior player to me and hits shots that I can only dream about.
“It’s nice, but to be close to him and to know him is an even greater honour. The leaderboard doesn’t count when you are playing with Tiger. All your focus is on playing solid golf in his presence.”
Woods confessed that he had didn’t play well and never hit the ball close enough to give himself realistic birdie opportunities.
But he was generous in his praise of McGrane’s handling of the circus that normally surrounds him.
Woods said: “Damien did well today. Obviously, he’s probably never been in those circumstance before but he went out there and grinded his way along today and kept himself right there in the tournament.”
After almost knocking his recovery from the desert into the water at the 18th, McDowell fired a 150-yard seven iron to eight feet for an unlikely birdie that boosted his chances of a first European Tour win since 2004.
“Three back is perfect,” McDowell said of his position entering the final round. “It’s exactly where I wanted to be at the start of the week. I wanted to give myself a chance going into the last day and I think I am playing well enough to win.”
Gary Murphy birdied the last for a 71 that left him five strokes off the pace in a six-way share of 11th place on six under with Paul McGinley two strokes further back after a 69.
Still unhappy with his putting, McGinley said: “I dropped just one shot today and I’ve dropped four all week but I am just not making enough birdies and that’s been the story this year, so far.
“My birdie count is really low and that is what’s hurting me and that’s why I am not contending.”