Graeme McDowell could have been forgiven for waving the white flag but he refused to bow to Tiger Woods and vowed to chase him down in what promises to be a wind-blown final round at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral’s Blue Monster.
After making career record 24 birdies in his first three rounds, Woods holds a four-shot lead over the Northern Ireland man and taking just 74 putts, another personal best, the American looks all but unbeatable on a course where has already won three times..
Given Woods’ brilliance on the greens this week, it would be easy to suggest that McDowell is playing for second place and can simply enjoy the front row seat as Woods head for his 17th WGC victory and his first since the won that 2009 Bridgestone Invitational duel with Padraig Harrington.
But the Ulsterman has history on his side when it come to chasing down Woods and has no intention of giving up, despite his admiration for the 14-time major winner.
While Woods has won 16 out 16 PGA Tour events when leading by four or more, McDowell came from four behind to beat him in a playoff in the 2010 Chevron World Challenge.
It was the culmination of McDowell’s most brilliant year to date, coming on the heels of his US Open win at Pebble Beach and his Ryder Cup winning heroics in Wales.
He looks near to that level again - arguably better - but the bad news is that Woods is also close to matching or even improving on the unbeatable version of himself that dominated the game a dozen years ago.
Woods was standing at the back of the interview room when McDowell was asked the last time he saw the game’s greatest active star play the game as well as he’s done this week.
“Kind of hard to answer these with him in the room,” he said, drawing laughs from the media. “I guess I turned pro 2002, so I guess I missed the sort of early 2000s when he was phenomenal.
“I’ve had a lot of chances to play with him the last five or six years. He was very solid today, very impressive the way he controlled his golf ball and the way he won his 14 major championships.
“The way he controlled his ball it wasn’t like wow, it was just really solidly good and impressive, you know, so …”
With Woods breaking into a huge grin at the back of the room, McDowell stopped himself heaping more praise on the shoulders of his final round opponent, shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and said: “Okay, that’s enough of that.”
While he wobbled dangerously under the weight of a couple of body blows after the turn, McDowell did well to re-group and keep Woods just about within his reach.
Two behind the American starting the day, he started brilliantly by holing a 20 footer for eagle at the first and his opponent missed his eagle chance from 11 feet.
Woods birdied the second to go two clear again, matched McDowell’s birdie three at the third but then bogyed the fourth and then saw himself tied at the top when McDowell holed a 20 footer for birdie at the sixth.
When Woods birdied the eighth to go clear again, McDowell knew it was not going to be easy to put any daylight between himself and his opponent and found himself six back with three holes to play.
“I’m not sure if I can hit the ball any better than I did. Really controlled everything extremely well. Shot four-under par on the front nine and felt like I could have been seven or eight, you know.”
But the round changed at the par-five 10th, where McDowell hit two beautiful shots to 40 feet and watched Woods lay up before flipping his third to six feet.
From looking favourite to get back on terms again, McDowell walked off the green two strokes behind when he knocked his eagle putt four feet past and then missed the return after Woods had canned his birdie chance.
“The three-putt on 10 kind of rattled me a little bit because Tiger didn’t look like he was going to do anything wrong,” McDowell said. “I really felt like I needed to be making putts like that.”
Having gone 46 holes without making a bogey, McDowell dropped his first shot of the week at the next when he bunkered his second. Suddenly he was three adrift and struggling for confidence.
A double bogey six at the 14th, where he got to cute with a chip and fluffed it, left Woods five ahead before the American birdied the 15th from nine feet to leave him six adrift.
Suddenly it was Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker who where Woods’ nearest rivals but the Ryder Cup pair eventually shot 69s to finish the day tied for third on 13 under,
McDowell held on by his fingertips, chipped in for eagle at the driveable 16th to get back to four behind and then took advantage of a stroke of luck at the 17th, when Woods lost a ball up a palm tree but got away with a bogey five after an official confirmed that his ball was in the tree.
Facing a treacherous, downhill 85 foot birdie putt at the 18th, the Portrush man hit a sensational lag putt to nine inches and tapped in for a 69 and 14 under.
Woods, however, had to have the last word and holed a 16 footer for his 24th birdie of the week to lead on 18 under.
“Tiger played fantastic,” McDowell said. “All respect to the way he handled himself today and the way he played. He’s going to be a tough guy to catch. But according to the forecast tomorrow, we are going to have strong winds.
“I think that’s an advantage to the rest of the field, because benign conditions, the way he looks like he’s playing, 67, 68, he’s going to be a tough man to catch. But with tough conditions tomorrow, hopefully we’ll have a chance.”
The field has Steve Stricker to thank for Woods’ brilliance on the greens after he gave his Ryder Cup partner a putting lessom.
“That was nice of him,” McDowell said ironically. “I’m sure he’s regretting that lesson right now.”
“You know, we were it was a lot of fun out there, certainly for the first 11 holes, and even the first ten holes. Like I say, I lost my way a little bit for four or five holes, and he was pretty impressive. But a lot of fun to be out there with one of the best players in the world and getting a chance to tussle with him again tomorrow.”
As for Woods, the world No 2 was asked the question that said it all about his state of mind.
“Do you feel, in other words, that your game can be just as good as it was in 2000, in 2013?
TIGER WOODS: Well, I don’t want it to be as good. That was never the intent.
Q. You want it to be …
TIGER WOODS: I want it to be better, exactly.”