SYDNEY (AP) — Tiger Woods keeps referring to the “process” as he tries to work his way back toward the top of golf.
Despite a setback Saturday at the Australian Open, it looks like progress.
With a one-shot lead going into the third round — his first time atop any leaderboard in nearly a year — Woods trudged off the 18th green at The Lakes with a 3-over 75 and found himself six shots behind John Senden.
He started the day posing over a short iron that was headed right for the flag, only for the ball to take one hop forward and trickle off the steep bank to the left of the green that set up the first of three straight bogeys. By the end of his round, he was staring down putts and looking perplexed when they turned away from the cup.
Since his last win two years ago at the Australian Masters, Woods now has been in front three times.
And all three times, he failed to break par.
“Well, 75s are never exciting,” Woods said.
Even so, his third round at the Australian Open didn’t feature wild shots that have hurt him before, such as the last time he had the lead. That was the final round of the Chevron World Challenge last December, when he blew a four-shot lead and lost in a playoff to Graeme McDowell.
Before that, he was tied for the opening round lead at Ridgewood with Vaughn Taylor at The Barclays last year, then saw his round fall apart with a series of shaky putts, none worse than a putt he missed from 20 inches.
Woods opened with three straight bogeys Saturday — narrowly missing the green at No. 1, going long with a strong breeze at his back on No. 2 and hitting a poor pitch from just short of the green at No. 3.
The only big damage on his day came from one bad tee shot and failing to take advantage of the par 5s.
“I just got off to an awful start,” Woods said. “The round should have been an easy 71, no problem. I played the par 5s bad, I didn’t take care of 13. But if I take care of the par 5s and make a couple of putts, it’s a 1 or 2 under round. But I made nothing today.”
The cheers kept coming from the group ahead of Woods — first for Jason Day, who knocked in a 40-foot birdie putt on the ninth green to take the lead, then for Senden, who holed out for eagle with a wedge on the sixth hole and poured in six birdies for his 63.
Senden was at 12-under 204 and will be in the final group with Day, who had to settle for a 68.
“I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be nervous,” Senden said. “I think it’s about being in the moment, playing golf shots one at a time and doing the best you can with your mental work and routine. Have fun and enjoy it, rather that make it stressful. That’s all I can hope for.”
Day celebrated his 24th birthday Saturday with a 68 and will play in the final group with Senden with a chance to win his national championship in his first time home to Australia in nearly five years.
“I really want to win one, really bad,” Day said. “I grew up watching the Australian Open and it has always been on my long-term goal list. I’m in a good position to hopefully check it off my list tomorrow.”
Woods would have been lying if he said he didn’t waste a good opportunity.
Still, he found himself looking ahead instead of what he left behind. The Lakes is a course that offers good scores, as Senden showed on a day of light wind and sunshine over Sydney. A half-dozen par 4s, and even a few of the par 5s, can be attacked with irons off the tee. It all comes down to putting, which deserted Woods in the third round.
“I need to play good on that front nine. Anything can happen on the back nine,” Woods said. “If I can just play a good, solid front nine and get things going on the back nine, they have some easy holes on the back nine. If I can shoot some low scores, I’ll be right there.”
As usual, the trouble for Woods is that others are playing well around him.
Senden holed out with a wedge from about 112 yards on the sixth hole for an eagle that sent him on his way. Day is always on the attack, especially on the greens. He holed the long birdie putt on the ninth, and nearly chipped in from across the green and up a slope on the par-5 14th to escape with par.
Greg Chalmers had a 67 and was two shots behind. Nick Watney had a 68 and was three behind.
Woods’ largest comeback is an eight-shot deficit in 1998 at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand, when he teed off early and shot 65 and then beat Ernie Els in a playoff. That was nearly 14 years ago.
Woods is more about the future these days.
He still thinks he can make a run at the Australian Open. Next week is the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne. For months, there has been debate that U.S. captain Fred Couples should not have taken Woods, given that he missed most of the summer recovering from leg injuries and hasn’t won in two years.
Despite falling out of contention Saturday, Woods no longer looks as if he will be a burden to the American team.