Wind is what Tiger Woods wanted, and wind was what he and the rest of the field got today for the third round of the American Express Championship at Valderrama Golf Club, which ended with Woods a shot away from the lead and more history Sunday afternoon.
With birdies on his final two holes, Woods finished with a solid round of 1-under-par 70 in the difficult conditions that left him at 3-under 210 for the tournament, which has a $5 million purse. The co-leaders are Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez (69 today) and American Chris Perry (72).
Jimenez was on the European Ryder Cup team and is looking for his third victory of the season (his first two also were in Spain). He had a chance for sole possession of the lead but three-putted from 30 feet on No. 18, evoking a huge groan from a highly partisan gallery when he missed a three-footer for a par.
Asked how he would sleep tonight, Jimenez answered in Spanish, with the following translation: "I'm going to sleep like a pig in a muddy and dirty place. I'll sleep well and have good thoughts. . . . I don't fear anyone. I have been saying that for a long time."
Perry, the son of former major league pitcher Jim Perry and the nephew of Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, hasn't won on the PGA Tour this season. However, he has had 11 top 10 finishes and earned just more than $2 million, a career best. Last week, he entered the final round of the Tour Championship in second place, three strokes behind Woods; he shot a 1-over 72 and finished fourth.
He was a co-leader after two rounds with Tim Herron, who ballooned to 77 today, and he earned a share of the 54-hole lead by making a 10-footer for a birdie at the 536-yard 17th hole and parring the 18th.
"I'm looking forward to tomorrow," Perry said. "I've had a great year, and I hope I can cap it off with a good round. But I know I'm going to have to play a lot better than I did today. I just hope this was my weak round."
Woods had plenty of company at 3 under. He was tied with four players--Ryder Cup teammates Tom Lehman (71 today), Justin Leonard (72) and Hal Sutton (69), and his third-round playing partner, Nick Price (70).
The course maintained its dignity today: Brent Geiberger and Dennis Paulson tied for the day's lowest score with 68s. And 19 players are within four shots of the co-leaders in the race for the $1 million winner's check.
But Woods has several other heady goals in mind, including a chance to increase his single-season-record earnings to more than $6 million--a figure he will reach only if he wins. A victory also would be his fourth in a row, a feat that has not been achieved since Ben Hogan did it in 1953 by winning The Masters and the Pan American, Colonial and U.S. opens. Hogan won about $30,000 that year. Woods is at $5.61 million this year.
Woods also is in grand position to win his eighth tour event of the season. That hasn't been accomplished since Johnny Miller did it in 1974, though Woods will remain well short of Byron Nelson's record 18 victories in 1945, a mark that may never be equaled. Nelson won $63,000 that year and was paid in war bonds.
The winner here will earn every nickel if conditions Sunday resemble those today--and more wind is forecast. The 15 mph breeze, which gusted to 20 mph, made club selection a guessing game on some holes, and many shots that started directly at flags were knocked down short or blown left or right of the tiny greens.
"We played the first two rounds with it [blowing] from the other direction, off the sea," Woods said. "It was nice to get a round in Wednesday with this same wind [that prevailed today]. It wasn't this strong [Wednesday], but at least you had some idea of what clubs to hit and where you needed to land the ball in the fairway."
How much difference did the wind make in Woods's game? Friday, on the 422-yard 16th hole, he hit a 2-iron off the tee, a soft 8-iron to the green and made birdie. Today, he hit his driver off the tee, and the ball landed several yards behind the spot where Friday's 2-iron shot did. He had 144 yards to the front of the green and thought he could get home with a 7-iron. Instead, his ball, hit sky high to clear a tree in his line, got caught in the wind and fell about 30 yards short of the putting surface. He chipped to 12 feet below the hole and missed the putt for one of his two bogeys today.
That left him at 1 over par for the tournament at a time when the leaders were still at 5 under. Woods said he told himself a par round for the day would keep him in contention, considering no one in the field was going low. Instead, he did one better, with those birdies at Nos. 17 and 18.
"That's a huge lift, knowing that you're only one back," Woods said. "That can obviously be made up in one hole, and you can make it up without doing anything."
Woods is also riding a huge crest of confidence, and that also should be to his advantage.
"It helps me out in the fact that I know I can do it," he said. "I've been doing it, and I take some confidence from that. . . . If I can somehow end up in the winner's circle tomorrow, I'd take a lot of pride in that because there's great depth in this field and a lot of great players."