January 28, 2012

Tiger vaults into the lead at Abu Dhabi Golf Club

Tiger Woods carded a bogey-free, 6-under-par 66 Saturday to earn a share of the lead after three rounds of the $2.7 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at warm and windless Abu Dhabi Golf Club in the United Arab Emirates. Woods and Robert Rock of England both have 54-hole totals of 11-under 205.

It marked the second bogey-free round of the tournament for Woods, and was his best score since a second-round 66 in the Masters last year.

For the third straight day, Woods looked in almost total control of his swing, hitting 16 of 18 greens in regulation. He worked the ball both ways off the tee and was never in trouble.

Woods, making his 2012 competitive debut and first appearance in the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi event, was paired with 22-year-old Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland for the third consecutive round, along with Robert Karlsson of Sweden. The trio attracted a huge gallery and didn’t disappoint.

Woods got off to a fast start with a birdie at the par-4 first hole, holing an eight-foot birdie putt. He followed with four two-putt pars, then made a good save at the par-4 sixth, where his second shot finished just left of the green. Looking to hole his chip shot, Woods ran the ball five feet past and made the par putt.

At the 199-yard, par-3 seventh hole, Woods hit a three-quarter shot seven feet past the pin and slipped in the birdie putt. He gave himself another good birdie opportunity at the par-5 eighth, where he came up just short of the green in two. However, Woods ran his pitch-and-run shot 20 feet past the hole and two-putted for a par.

Woods hit a 3-wood off the tee at the par-4 ninth, but his right foot slipped and he pushed his tee shot well right, fortunate not to find the water. He wound up in a sandy waste area and had a clear path to the green, wisely hitting his approach 30 feet left of the hole and two-putted for a par to make the turn in 2-under 34.

At the par-5 10th, Woods hit a nice drive down the middle of the fairway, then flushed a beautiful fairway wood into the center of the green and two-putted for a birdie from 40 feet to earn a share of the lead at 8-under.

Woods drove into the right rough with a 3-wood at the par-4 11th, but hit a nice approach from 165 yards about 35 feet below the hole and two-putted for a par. At the 191-yard, par-3 12th, he hit a wonderful tee shot eight feet underneath the hole and stroked in the birdie putt.

Woods hit his 3-wood tee shot into the right fairway bunker at the 414-yard, par-4 13th hole. The sand proved no problem, as he caught a 9-iron cleanly and wound up on the back fringe, 25 feet above the cup. Woods two-putted easily for a par.

At the 490-yard, par-4 14th, Woods found the fairway with a 3-wood, then knocked his approach shot from 195 yards about 23 feet left of the hole and poured in the birdie putt, raising his putter with his left hand and doing a mini-fist pump with his right. The make lifted him to 10-under for the tournament and into sole possession of first place on the tightly-bunched leaderboard.

Woods two-putted the 171-yard, par-3 15th hole from 45 feet. At the 475-yard, par-4 16th, he hit a nice drive and a fine second shot from 176 yards to within 14 feet left of the pin. Woods was fooled on the left-to-right putt and two-putted for a par.

At the 483-yard, par-4 17th hole, Woods drove into the left rough, but managed to muscle his second shot onto the green from thick grass, the ball stopping about 100 short of the cup. He stroked a beautiful lag putt within three feet of the hole and escaped with par.

Woods thundered a long drive at the 567-yard, par-5 18th hole and reached the green in two with a fairway wood from 280 yards, the ball releasing toward the middle of the putting surface and leaving a 50-foot downhill putt to the front pin. Once again, Woods judged the putt perfectly, his eagle attempt finishing three feet from the cup, which he converted for a closing birdie.

Woods will be in the final pairing Sunday alongside Robert Rock and Peter Hanson, and will tee off at 2:45 a.m. ET.