Woods stretches his lead on Blue Monster

Sunday - 3/10/2013, 6:50pm EDT

DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer

DORAL, Fla. (AP) -- With one last birdie putt that never looked like it was going anywhere but in the hole, Tiger Woods walked off the Blue Monster in a familiar position.

He had a four-shot lead over Graeme McDowell in the Cadillac Championship, the 17th time on the PGA Tour that he has led by at least four shots going into the final round. Woods has never lost when leading by that much on tour.

Saturday at Doral was a reminder, however, how quickly it all can change.

Woods knocked in a short birdie putt on the 15th hole to put six shots between him and McDowell.

Two holes later, after McDowell chipped in for eagle and Woods found himself staring some 20 feet in the air at his golf ball lodged in a palm tree to the right of the 17th fairway, the lead was cut in half.

Woods saved his best for the final hole.

He drilled a tee shot into the fairway, hit 9-iron to 15 feet and made his 24th birdie of the tournament for a 5-under 67, putting him on the cusp of another World Golf Championship and a big step toward returning to No. 1 in the world.

"After I made birdie on 15, I was looking pretty good with a six-shot lead, and with a drivable par 4," Woods said. "Two holes later, it's now cut down to three. I piped a tee shot down there, hit a little 9-iron there and was able to pour that putt in there."

The ball never came down from the tree, which was about the only thing that didn't fall his way.

The 24 birdies and 74 putts are personal records for Woods. More importantly, it put him in great position to win his 17th WGC title, and his first since 2009.

"He controlled every part of his game very well, very few loose shots," said McDowell, who did well to two-putt for par from 85 feet on the last hole for a 69 that at least kept him in final group for Sunday.

"You know, 17 was a really bad break for him. But in true Tiger fashion that we've become very accustomed to over the years, to come back and birdie the last, he was fantastic today," he said.

"So maximum respect there. He's going to be a tough man to catch tomorrow. I get to watch it and get to see him, and hopefully get a chance to get close to him tomorrow."

Woods has a 39-2 record when he has the outright lead going into the final round on the PGA Tour. The only time he has ever lost a lead of more than two shots in any tournament around the world was in 2010 against an 18-man field at the Chevron World Challenge, when McDowell beat him in a playoff.

McDowell certainly was up for the fight on a breezy, sunny afternoon near Miami. Despite a shaky stretch of holes that appeared to end his chances, he drove just over the green on the par-4 16th and chipped in for eagle, and hit that putt across the 18th green that amazed even Woods.

"He hit a hell of a putt," Woods said.

Woods was at 18-under 198.

Phil Mickelson, who badly wanted to get into the final group, overcame a three-putt from 4 feet for double bogey on the third hole by making four birdies the rest of the way. He had a 69, along with Steve Stricker, and both were five shots behind.

"I threw away five or six shots on the greens and around the greens, and I feel like I don't have to play too much different," Mickelson said. "I just can't afford to give away those shots. I'm going to have to play a round like I played at Pebble last year, something in the low 60s."

A year ago, Mickelson shot 64 in the final round to win at Pebble Beach while playing in the same group with Woods.

Rory McIlroy, the world's No. 1 player, had a rough start until rallying on the back nine with five birdies in a six-hole stretch that carried him to a 71. He was 15 shots behind.

Woods used to own these WGC events, winning 16 of the first 30 that he played. He has gone 0-for-10 since Firestone in August 2009, though the odds were stacked in his favor at the Cadillac Championship. He already is a three-time winner at Doral, and he has been putting well ever since Stricker gave him a tip on the eve of the tournament.