MIAMI (AFP) - Tiger Woods fired seven birdies, the last of them a 16-footer at the final hole, on his way to seizing a four-stroke lead after 54 holes on Saturday at the World Golf Championships Cadillac Championship.
World No. 2 Woods, whose 24 birdies through the first three rounds is a personal best for any PGA event since he joined the US tour in 1996, fired a five-under-par 67 to match the day's low round and stand on 18-under-par 198.
"It's important to be playing well. This golf course is tricky," Woods said. "The downhill putts are unbelievable." Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, playing alongside Woods, eagled twice in the same round for the first time in his career on his way to a 69 that left him on 202 and partnered with Woods in the final round as well.
"Tiger was a tough guy. He played great," McDowell said. "I'm glad I gave myself a chance tomorrow." Woods, a 14-time major champion seeking his 76th career PGA victory, has won 49 times in 53 events where he has led entering the final round but he has never lost in that situation when leading by three strokes or more.
Just after finishing the round, Woods was already contemplating tougher conditions on the last day.
"Tomorrow is supposed to be tougher. The wind is supposed to be tougher," he said. "And these greens are baked out. It's hard to hold them." Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker shared third on 203 with South Africa's Charl Schwartzel, Spain's Sergio Garcia and Americans Michael Thompson and Keegan Bradley sharing fifth on 205.
World No. 1 Rory McIlroy fired five birdies in a six-hole span starting at the 11th hole but it was only enough to salvage a round of 71, leaving him in a share of 30th at 213.
The Northern Irish star took a bogey at the par-4 third, a double bogey at the par-3 fourth and made bogeys to open and close the back nine as well.
With the Masters only a month away, Woods is showing the form that has him within reach of the record 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus, having already won earlier this year at Torrey Pines.
Woods has three career triumphs at Doral's Blue Monster and six in this $8.5 million WGC event, which has been hosted by several courses, but he has not won a WGC event in his past 10 attempts as he seeks his 17th career WGC victory.
While Woods has produced lower scores over his first 54 holes at a PGA event, he has never fired so many birdies in the first three rounds, his old personal best of 22 birdies in 54 holes achieved at the 2007 Tour Championship and 2005 Ford Championship.
Woods, who led McDowell by two strokes when the day began, opened with three birdies and answered a bogey at the par-4 fifth with birdies at the par-5 eighth and 10th holes.
A nine-foot birdie putt at the par-3 15th gave Woods a five-stroke lead on the field but he would stumble spectacularly at the par-4 17th.
Woods smacked his tee shot into a palm tree and it stuck there but was lucky to have a line he drew across the middle of the ball as an identifying mark clearly visible, allowing him to take an unplayable lie drop rather than going back to the tee with a lost ball.
After blasting to the edge of the green, Woods two-putted from 35 feet for a bogey, then followed by dropping his birdie putt at 18, pumping his right fist in celebration as the ball went into the cup.
"I piped it at 18, stuffed a soft 9-iron in there and that was a nice putt to make," Woods said. "It was nice to get some positiveness, especially after the way 17 went." McDowell eagled the par-5 opening hole and added birdies at the third and sixth hole, but Woods birdied two of the next three and after McDowell took a bogey at the par-4 11th, the Northern Irishman was three strokes off the pace.
McDowell stumbled back with a double bogey at the par-4 14th but responded two holes later with his second eagle of the day, sinking a tricky chip shot from greenside rough.
"I was struggling to get my focus back," McDowell said. "I was scruffy and clumsy and very frustrating. Nice to get the train back on the rails." Mickelson and Stricker will play together for the fourth day in a row after firing the exact same scores in each of the first three rounds.
"I really think I can make a run tomorrow," Mickelson said.