Graeme McDowell is more worried about taming a US Open style Bay Hill than staring down Tiger Woods in the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Both men shot one under 71’s on Saturday, leaving Woods a stroke clear of the 2010 US Open champion on 11 under par at a course where he has won six times as a professional.
Just a few years ago, all the pressure would have been on McDowell as he seeks just his second official win in the US less than two weeks before the Masters.
But the 32-year old Ulsterman and the rest of world golf is well aware that the heat is all on Woods now as he bids to end a 924-day winless streak on the PGA Tour dating to his BMW Championship win at Cog Hill in 2009.
“The atmosphere is going to be fantastic out there tomorrow due to him being in the mix, and there’s no doubt that he’s done a lot for the game of golf,” McDowell said. “There’s going to be a nice amount of expectation on him tomorrow trying to complete the comeback.
“I know he says he’s not on a comeback, that he’s been around for a long time, but you know, he’s still got to win. Still got to go win tomorrow like the rest of us have to.”
That win in Chicago came just a few months before Woods crashed his car into a fire hydrant and a tree outside his Orlando home, heralding a bizarre sequence of events that led to sleazy series revelations of marital infidelity, sparking a dramatic fall from grace as a family man, a golfer and a globally revered sporting icon.
Woods will be wearing his trademark red shirt on Sunday but as McDowell said last year, the sight of it no longer strikes fear into the hearts of his rivals.
“That’s his trademark,” McDowell said last August. “Really, I think that’s all it is right now. What it means to him is obviously a different thing. What it means to the rest of us … it’s not really something to be intimidated by anymore.”
The reason Woods was so feared was his reputation as a closer. Of the 52 times he has held at least a share of the 54-hole lead on the US Tour, he has won 48 times.
But there have been signs of weakness since he returned from his self-imposed exile at the 2010 Masters. Three times he has led after 54 holes and failed to complete the job and McDowell was responsible for one of those loses, coming from four strokes behind to pip Woods in his Chevron World Challenge 15 months ago by holing a long bomb on the 72nd green to force a play-off before performing an action replay to win at the first extra hole.
“I think the more times you play with Tiger, the more you kind of acclimatize to being in the group with him,” McDowell recalled of that 2010 meeting. “You know, it’s not really the intimidation factor of him; it’s more the kind of circus that goes with him, the media, the cameras, just everything; you multiply it by ten, 15, 20, from playing with anyone else.
“I’ve played with him many times, as recently as Tuesday in the Tavistock. As I say I feel I’ve acclimatized nicely to playing with him. He’s a great guy to play with. He always compliments good shots, and like I say, he’s just another guy that I’ve got to go and try and beat tomorrow. He’s not going to be able to tackle me thank goodness, and all I’ve got to do is just play my golf ball.
“Looking back to the Chevron, I managed to make a couple nice bombs on him on the last green, and it’s fun to do to Tiger what he’s done to other players and what he’s done a few times in the last round here at Bay Hill.”
Woods will be looking for his 72nd PGA Tour win today. But there is more at stake as he bids to prove that he is not damaged goods mentally following the trauma of his marital breakup and public humiliated not to mention a another raft of swing changes forced upon him by a series of crippling knee and Achilles’ tendon problems.
“As far as what it would mean,” Woods said when asked what a win would signify, “it would be No. 72. Not a bad number, either.”
It was his parting shot at a news conference that followed a fraught end to an interesting day for Woods.
Four clear with five holes of his third round to go, the American followed a bogey on the 14th by wilding hooking his tee shot miles out of bounds at the 15th to double bogey.
It turned out that he was put off when a woman screamed in the middle of his back swing as a youngster fainted in front of her at a nearby concession stand, so warm was the afternoon sun.
McDowell drew level briefly with a birdie at the 17th ended a run of 12 straight pars after he had followed a bogey at the third with a birdie at the fourth.
But Woods gathered himself to birdie the par-five 16th and take the slimmest of leads into the final round.
Ernie Els, who needs to win to be sure of qualifying for the Masters, and Ian Poulter are tied for third, three adrift on eight under.
“I’m just looking forward to it,” Woods said. “It’s going to be fun. Graeme and I, we enjoy playing together and it’s going to be a fun pairing. I’m looking forward to getting out there and seeing what happens.”
As for his loss to McDowell at Sherwood Country Club 15 months ago, Woods said: “I had just started working with Foley a couple months, so I was very new to the mold.
“I only had one pattern at the time. Now I’ve got much more of a variety of game I can play out there. At the time I was very one‑dimensional, and it was‑‑ I did pretty good with it for three days, but I couldn’t do that well with it for four days.”
Fighting talk. And why not. Woods was impressive until his unfortunate double bogey at the 15th ruined a pretty controlled round.
“I’m excited about tomorrow,” Woods said. “I’m pleased at what I did today. As I said, just that one thing that happened at 15; otherwise, it’s a round in the 60s.
“That was a solid round of golf under these conditions, and you know, we are supposed to get some rain probably in the morning, so we’ll see what happens with how much that softens things up. “
McDowell played conservatively on a firm course but knows he might have to play more aggressively today to notch what would be a hugely important win in terms on his US season and his bid to qualify for the Ryder Cup team,
“The golf course is going to be the main competitor tomorrow,” McDowell said. “We’ve just got to go and play against it. It’s an old cliché, go and play the course. But when the setup is this difficult, you really can’t be focused on what anybody else is doing.
“I guess, I guess, through 15 holes is a time to come up for air and just see where you’re at, because 16 is a chance to go take a pin on and maybe make eagle. Until that point to be honest with you, apart from the four or five birdies chances that there is, you’ve just got to play smart on this golf course.
“For sure, if he starts going low or someone starts going low, you have to react, but I’m going to stick to my game plan. It really is fairways and greens, and try and get into more of a groove with the putter than I did today. I felt like I putted very defensively today and I need to hit it a little closer and give myself a few more looks at birdie tomorrow.”
Els has to finish solo third at worst to have a chance of climbing into the Official World Golf Ranking’s top 50 in time for The Masters Tournament and from 15th place at halfway a 67 represented a great day’s work for the South African.
“I’ve had a pretty smooth career, but the last 18 months I’ve had to dig deep and I’ve been through the mill,” he said. “I’ve got some hope again.”
Poulter is still recovering from a bout of pneumonia, but shot a 68 which included an eagle on the fourth and birdies at the 15th and 16th just after he had bogeyed.
McDowell, runner-up in the event in 2005, added: “It was a tough grind, US Open-esque. The pins have been tucked away and I felt I played with the handbrake on a bit.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity of playing with a man who knows how to get it done round here. I’ll probably have to be a bit more positive with my iron play.”
McDowell added: “I’m exited to play with Tiger Woods in the last group. That’s where you want to be and that’s the guy you want to play with. He’s done some great stuff at Bay Hill but I’m hoping it’s reversed roles tomorrow.
“I’d love to try and take him on a course he knows his way around. It’s exciting. I am playing good enough. I am confident. I have just got to go and hit the shots tomorrow.”
Woods is aware that McDowell is not the only dangerman.
“Obviously Poults and Ernie played well today, and it’s the type of golf course that you can post a good number here,” he said. “So we need to get off to good starts, and go ahead and just play our games.”