DORAL, Fla. — Rory McIlroy thought he might have a chance at 59. Tiger Woods opened with three straight birdies and made a charge of his own. None of this bothered Bubba Watson, who figured he could go just as low Saturday at the Cadillac Championship.
All the noise about McIlroy and Woods soon disappeared when Watson started eagle-birdie.
And even when Justin Rose ran off four straight birdies to catch him, Watson responded with a style of golf only he plays. He plunked a man in the gallery on one hole and regained the lead with a birdie. His target on another hole was a man in an orange shirt, and he hit that one to tap-in range for another birdie.
When his wild day ended with what Watson called his best shot of the day — “I chipped a low bullet 7-iron” — on the 18th for a routine par on a hole that makes him nervous, he had a 5-under 67 and a three-shot lead.
If the last two days were not enough evidence, Watson likes to play golf his way.
He has never had a swing coach since his late father showed him the fundamentals at age 10. He once jokingly said he shouldn’t take advice from anyone who couldn’t beat him. And when asked if his caddie helps him out, Watson replied, “He’s not very good. That’s why he’s a caddie.”
Now he’s one round away from his first World Golf Championship.
Watson was at 17-under 199, three shots clear of PGA champion Keegan Bradley (66) and Justin Rose, who lost out on playing with Watson for the fourth straight day when he three-putted the 18th from long range and had to settle for a 69.
As for McIlroy, Woods?
They were eight shots behind on a Blue Monster course that is yielding plenty of birdies in moderate wind, but where it’s tough to catch a guy with a pink driver who belts it where few others can.
The only other player within five shots of the lead was Peter Hanson of Sweden, who nearly holed a bunker shot from a downhill lie on the 18th and shot 69.
Only once did Watson worry that his shot might go too far.
Having survived a turbulent stretch at Doral — he lost a four-shot lead over Rose in three holes — Watson’s lead was back to three shots when he was in a fairway bunker on the 16th, just over 100 yards away. He tried to blast a 64-degree wedge, caught too much of the ball, and saw it sail over the green toward a pond Watson didn’t know was there.
It hit a tower, dropped to the side and Watson escaped with bogey. He followed with another wild tee shot on the 17th, though he managed to save par with a good pitch from the front of the green. And on a closing hole he called “ridiculous,” he had an easy two-putt par.
“All in all, it was a great day,” he said.
No one is ready to concede victory to Watson, even Rose, who has seen enough of his action the last three days. They had a better-ball score of 59 on Friday, and 60 on Saturday.
“Three back, it’s a lot to Bubba on this golf course,” Rose said. “But at least there’s not a lot of guys ahead of you. There’s only one guy at 17 under, and the rest of the pack is right there, so it doesn’t take much.”
Matt Kuchar (66) and Zach Johnson (67) were another shot behind. Adam Scott looked as though he might give Watson a run until the Australian started missing short putts, the pulled his tee shot into the water on the 18th and made double bogey. Scott dropped four shots over the last three holes.
McIlroy played the last six holes in 2 over and still shot 65, while Woods failed to do much after his birdie-birdie-birdie start. He twice made bogey on the par 5s and shot 68. They were eight shots behind.
The wind has been decreasing since the opening round, and so have the scores.
McIlroy hit two fluffy wedges at the start of his round, but he atoned for the second one by chipping in for birdie, and away he went. McIlroy shot 30 on the front nine without making birdie on the two par 5s, then made up for that with a fairway metal into about 18 feet for an eagle on No. 10. That put him 10 under for the tournament, only two off the lead.
Watson was still on the practice range, though, and this was a day when just about everyone went low.
Neither McIlroy nor Woods could keep up.
McIlroy hit a good chip from short of the par-5 12th, with his right foot deep in the sand and his left foot on the hill, and converted that into a birdie that put him one shot behind. He was 9 under for the day through 12 holes, and the kid couldn’t help but think of a 59.
“You’re thinking four (birdies) of the last six and here we go,” McIlroy said. “But obviously, it didn’t happen like that.”
McIlroy made bogey from a poor lie in the bunker on the 14th, and then turned a birdie hole into a bad bogey on the par-4 16th then his lob wedge from the rough barely reached the green. He had to remind himself that 65 wasn’t awful.
Woods, meanwhile, made a bad bogey on the par-5 eighth when he pulled a 2-iron over the green, dumped his third shot in the bunker and couldn’t get up-and-down. He also took a penalty shot on the par-5 12 and made bogey, and his momentum was gone.
Doral is the only course left on his regular PGA Tour schedule where he has never finished out of the top 10. That streak remains in play, though he is too far back from the leaders to be considered a serious threat.
“The scores being as low as they are, the winning score is probably going to be in the 20s,” he said. “So you’re going to have to take care of those par 5s.”
Even though both flirted with contention, neither was a factor late in the day.
DIVOTS: Thomas Bjorn went 49 holes without a bogey until a double bogey on the 14th. He then made bogey two of the next four holes for a 75, falling from contention. … McIlroy is among those happy to see Donald Trump has purchased Doral. Given the low scoring, McIlroy said it was a resort course and needs work. “It was a tough test 15 years ago, but now it’s just outdated,” he said. “They definitely need to do something with it, and it’s great to see that Trump is taking over the place.”