AKRON, Ohio — With an elite field chasing the lead, Tiger Woods decided to play keep-away.
Already up by a staggering seven shots through 36 holes thanks to a career-tying best of 61 in the second round, Woods shot a solid 2-under 68 on Saturday in the Bridgestone Invitational to maintain that same seven-stroke lead.
It was as if he was turning around and daring the world’s best players to come after him. No one really could.
“You know, today was a day that I didn’t quite have it,” said Woods, who was at 15-under 195. “But I scored. And that’s the name of the game, posting a number, and I did today. I grinded my way around that golf course.”
Now he’s only 18 holes away from making even more history in a career of historic accomplishments. He’ll be competing against the record book as much as the elite field.
“It’s kind of tough to pick up seven or eight shots on Tiger around here,” said Henrik Stenson, a distant second after a 67. “It would take something spectacular on my behalf or any of the other guys around me, and obviously a very, very poor round for him.”
Woods, by the way, is 41-2 when leading after 54 holes in a PGA Tour event.
A victory would be his eighth at Firestone Country Club and in the Bridgestone and its forerunner, the NEC Invitational. That would match the tour-record eight he already has at Bay Hill and the eight wins Sam Snead had at the Greater Greensboro Open.
Woods also could capture his 79th victory on the PGA Tour, drawing him within three of Snead’s record of 82.
“I’ll just go out there and execute my game plan,” he said. “It all starts with what the weather is doing, and then I build it from there. We’ll see what I do tomorrow.”
Unlike in a second-round 61 that could easily have been a 59 or even lower, Woods didn’t recover from all of his errant shots. He bogeyed the ninth, 14th and 16th holes, failing to bounce back from wayward shots.
Yet he still was good enough to put himself in position for yet another lopsided victory, one that will likely mark him as the player to beat next week in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
“Any time you can go into a major tournament or any tournament with a win under your belt, it’s nice,” Woods said. “It validates what you’re working on and you have some nice momentum going in there.”
Of course, Woods has failed to win his last 17 major championships. No longer is it a lock that, with 14, he’ll surpass the mark of 18 by Jack Nicklaus.
Woods began the third round with a seven-shot lead after rounds of 66 and the career-best 61 — the fourth time he has gone that low, also matching the tournament record originally set by Jose Maria Olazabal in 1990.
Jason Dufner was third, eight strokes back after a 67, and Luke Donald (68), Bill Haas (69) and Chris Wood (70) followed at 6 under.
Dufner said Firestone isn’t all that unique because it is just one of a number of places where Woods dominates.
“Yeah, he has a pretty good track record here,” he said. “There’s quite a few events out here that he does really well. Torrey Pines comes to mind, Bay Hill comes to mind, the Memorial. So he obviously feels comfortable on those courses, and it’s our job to try and chase him down if we can.”
Defending champ Keegan Bradley, with a 71, was another shot back along with Miguel Angel Jimenez, who put up a 65. Rounding out the top 10 were 2011 Bridgestone winner and reigning Masters champ Adam Scott and Zach Johnson.
Woods has overwhelmed everyone in a glittering field that includes 48 of the top 50 players in the world ranking.
Much like he did a day earlier, Woods started out fast. He birdied the first two holes (he had also eagled No. 2 in the second round). He rolled in a 12-footer at No. 1 and then two-putted from 40 feet at No. 2, most likely causing the rest of the players to just shake their heads.
From there, however, he proved merely human. He parred the next six holes and then drove into the sheer face of a fairway bunker and took a bogey at the ninth hole.
He played the back nine 1-under par — including yet another shot for the highlight reel.
At the par-4 13th, he airmailed his iron shot over the green and into heavy, grabby rough. But he got a sand wedge under the ball, popping it straight up. It landed on the green and rolled right to the pin, clanging off it and into the hole for birdie from 40 feet away.
“Certainly, it wasn’t a shot I was trying to make. I was just trying to get it down there where I could get a par and get out of Dodge and dodge a bullet,” he said. “It just happened to go in.”
Of course, the ball often happens to just go in for Woods at World Golf Championship events like the Bridgestone.
He has won 17 times in 41 starts — a success rate of 41 percent — while finishing in the top 10 an amazing 32 times in WGC events.
At Firestone, he’s had winning streaks of four (2005-09) and three (1999-2001), and also has a tie for second and two fourth-place finishes.
Woods looked back on his round and gave it a thumbs-up.
“It ended up being a dead push for the day,” he said about hanging on to the same lead he began the day with. “That’s not too bad, either.”
Not too bad at all.
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