DORAL, Fla. -- The conversation between player and caddie was so lengthy, detailed and, at times, adversarial first glance might lead to the conclusion it was between Phil Mickelson and his looper Jim Mackay, a duo famous for their on-course verbal exchanges. But Lefty and Bones were safely in the middle of the fairway on No. 8 at TPC Blue Monster at Doral, watching the ongoing discussion. Instead, this chat Saturday at the WGC-Cadillac Championship involved Tiger Woods and his long-time bagman Steve Williams.
Yet another errant tee shot, this one with a 3-wood, had bounded into rough left of the eighth fairway. Standing between Woods and the green on the par-5 hole were a few trees, a handful of bunkers and a lot of water. For nearly 15 years now, fans have come to expect Wood to pull off impossible shots like this, but the Tiger who has not won in 16 months has been a little short of Houdini-like sleight-of-hand of late.
Still, Woods wanted to take a 5-wood, finesse it through the palms and then direct the bull to make a left turn toward the green some 250 yards away. Williams preferred playing an iron out to the right away from the water and then going at the green from there. "Over here you are putting for 4," Williams said, pointing to the right side of the fairway. "Over there you have no guarantee," he said, shrugging his should. "It's up to you."
Williams and Woods have been a team since March 1999 and have teamed for 13 of Tiger's 14 professional major championship victories. Woods has great respect for the opinion of Williams who, in all truth, is likely one of the few people on the planet who could handle the idiosyncratic Woods - who demands an interesting combination of subservience and hand-holding.
"All right," Woods said, "What's the number to the bunkers?" Told it was 140 yard, he grabbed the appropriate iron, played the safe lay-up shot and was willing to accept that, on this day and after where he drove the ball, a par would be the wise score on the hole were many birdies are made. Indeed, the 70 Woods posted in the third round was, while two under par, disappointing on a benign day when the Blue Monster felt like it was playing as a par 68.
Through 54 holes, Woods was two-under-par and, going into Sunday's final round, will be outside the top 30 and trail the leaders by double digits. With only one more competitive event left for him before the Masters - the Arnold Palmer Invitational in two weeks - Woods remained a man in search of his game, and there still seemed to be many aspects of that game which he was trying to locate.
Through three rounds, he was hitting the fairway off the tee only 42.9 percent of the time - and that despite driving with a fairway wood on many occasions. Remarkably, he still has managed to hit the green in regulation 72.2 percent of the time. But once on the green things have not gone well as his 30.3 putts per round and 1.846 putts per GIR are near the bottom of the 66-man field.
The good news for Woods is that he will be back home in Orlando for dinner on Sunday. He will be facing yet another early tee time in the final round while others are out trying to secure a World Golf Championship title Tiger has won six times since it commenced in 1999.
At Bay Hill in two weeks and then at Augusta National two weeks after that, one of the most compelling sports stories currently running will continue: When will Woods become a Tiger again? And you can't help but wonder if he remains winless through the Masters whether the questions shifts to: Will Woods ever be Tiger again? There is every reason to think he can be something close to his former self, but just enough doubt remains to make the upcoming events in which he plays high drama indeed.
-- Ron Sirak