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 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 lead he began the day with. “That’s not too bad, either.”