Crowds swirled, fists pumped and great roars thundered across Medinah Country Club today as Tiger Woods pursued the second major title of his career at the 81st PGA Championship.
Ignited by three consecutive birdies early in his round--one on a 40-foot putt from 12 feet off the green--Woods posted a 4-under-par 68 while nearly 40,000 fans toured the course, mostly in his huge galleries.
His 54-hole total of 11-under 205 tied him for the lead with Mike Weir, a left-hander from Canada who battled Woods six weeks ago in the Western Open at nearby Cog Hill before finishing second to him by three shots.
Woods has had difficulty playing from behind in his two most recent major tournaments, the U.S. and British opens. But over his three-year career, he has been virtually invincible when leading after three rounds. He's 7 for 8 under such circumstances, including his only victory in a major, the 1997 Masters. This will be the first time since that memorable Sunday at Augusta National that Woods has started the final round of a major with the lead, or even a share of it.
"I am ready," Woods proclaimed when someone asked if he is prepared to break his streak of 10 consecutive majors without a victory. "But I need to play my own game. I know I'm tied with Mike and there are two more at 9 under. If they get off to a quick start, they're right in it. The guys at 6 under have a good shot, too."
Not long after Weir bogeyed the 219-yard 13th with three putts from 70 feet, he came back on No. 14 with a breathtaking eagle chip-in from the fairway. He made a 15-foot birdie putt at the 17th to grab a share of the lead, then kept it by making an eight-foot putt to complete a fine save of par at the 18th.
For a while today, it appeared that a dream Sunday pairing in the last group might comprise the 23-year-old Woods and 19-year-old Sergio Garcia. Garcia birdied the 17th to reach 9 under for the tournament, but then made par out of a greenside bunker at the 18th.
Garcia, in his first year as a pro and playing in his first PGA, finished with 68--208, tying him for third place with 26-year-old Stewart Cink. Cink also shot 68 today.
"I know it's a major, but I'm taking it as another tournament," said Garcia, who already has won the PGA European Tour's Irish Open this season. "If I win it, it will be better than a normal tournament. All these days on the first tee I'm a little nervous, but after a couple of shots, you just stay calm and try to concentrate. If [Woods] keeps playing like he played today, maybe we have to look for second place."
Nick Price and Jim Furyk made nice runs early today to get within five shots of the lead. Price, a two-time PGA champion, came in with a 69--210, as did Furyk, who is still seeking his first major title. They were in a four-way tie for fifth that included Skip Kendall, who bogeyed his last hole, and 36-hole leader Jay Haas.
Haas quickly tumbled out of the lead with bogeys on the third and fourth holes, turned to the back side with a 39, then held on with nine straight pars to stay somewhat in contention, if only he could make a putt.
The same could not be said for 54-year-old Hale Irwin, who had a three-putt bogey at the first hole and skied to a 78 that left him at 1-over 217 and playing for a check, not a fourth major title.
Woods ran off three straight mostly routine pars at the start of his round today, but his eyes clearly widened when he stepped to the tee at the 530-yard No. 5. He needed a 3-wood and 5-iron to reach that green, then two-putted from about 35 feet for his first birdie of the day.
At the 449-yard No. 6, Woods hit a huge drive that came to rest in high rough. His wedge fell about 12 feet short of the green and 40 feet from the hole, but he putted the ball dead in the cup, evoking a classic triple fist-pump for a most improbable birdie that got him to 9 under.
At the 588-yard seventh hole, his towering drive went way left, but he caught a decent lie on trampled-down rough and had a huge opening to the fairway. Woods whacked his second shot to the first cut of rough about 50 yards from the hole, hit his third shot to within four feet and made that putt to go to 10 under.
There were two more birdies on his card--a hooked 7-iron to 15 feet and one putt at the 407-yard 11th, then a driver and a 2-iron into a greenside bunker at the 583-yard 14th. His blast from the trap very nearly rolled into the hole, but he settled for a two-inch tap-in for his final birdie of the day.
That more than made up for his only bogey, when he missed a five-footer to save par at the 219-yard 13th. His 4-iron off the tee looked to be all over the flag, but came up short in high rough, and he was fortunate to get his chip that close before barely missing the putt.
Woods made a tricky eight-footer for par at the 16th, wasted another good birdie chance when he failed from 14 feet at the 17th, then saved par at the 18th after a third shot from the right rough left him with a testy five-footer that never was in doubt.
Weir's round seemed to be going nowhere when he bogeyed the 13th, and almost doubled when he just did slide a two-footer in the side door. But his eagle at the 14th from 30 yards clearly got him back in a positive mode, and his 15-foot birdie putt at the 17th tied him with Woods for the lead.
He nearly lost it when his second shot at the 18th found the bunker, but he blasted to eight feet and drained that putt to save par. Now he'll have to cope with another day of huge galleries, clicking photographers and immense pressure in only the third major he has ever played in, all this year.
"I'm just looking forward to the opportunity," Weir said early this evening. "It's the dream we all look forward to. I know I'll be nervous, but I think I can handle it."