Melbourne, Australia:Tiger Woods stumbled to an even-par 72 in the Australian Masters on Saturday, leaving him in a three-way tie for the lead with locals Greg Chalmers and James Nitties.
Woods lost his three-shot advantage in six holes as he hit one poor shot after another and put himself in bad positions. The only good news for the world's No. 1 player was that he still had a chance.
Chalmers, who hasn't won in his native Australia since 1998, had a 69 despite missing a 6-foot par putt on the 16th hole and a birdie putt on the 18th from about that range. Nitties, frustrated early as putts refused to fall, played bogey-free for his 69 and will give Kingston Heath an All-Australian final pairing.
Woods was so frustrated after missing a 5-foot birdie putt on the 12th, he hit his driver well to the right on the 354-yard 13th hole. He threw his driver into the ground and it bounced up and into the gallery, where one surprised fan caught the club and returned it.
"That was my mistake," Woods said. "I got hot and let go of the club."
He wasn't in the best of moods even before he teed off. Woods had what he described as a terrible session on the practice range. He took that game to the course, missing most of the shots to the right, starting with a 3-iron into the hay on the easy par-5 opening hole that he failed to birdie for the first time all week.
It never got better.
His lone birdies were a 35-foot putt on the second hole and a two-putt birdie on the 14th. With a chance to take the outright lead, Woods missed a 10-foot birdie on the final hole to join the leaders at 10-under 206.
"Today was reflective of how I warmed up," he said. "I'm very fortunate to be tied for the lead. I played myself into a tie. I could have played myself out of the tournament."
If he fails to win Sunday, it would be the first time in his career that Woods has blown 36-hole leads in three straight tournaments. He had the halfway lead at the Tour Championship and was tied after 36 holes last week in Shanghai, both tournaments won by Phil Mickelson.
The challenge now comes from an Aussie duo that was steady throughout the overcast day at Kingston Heath, which kept the greens relatively soft. Thirty-two of the 77 players who made the cut managed to break par.
Woods is playing Down Under for the first time since the Presidents Cup in 1998, and he has returned to record-setting crowds that have made Kingston Heath feel like a major, with fans climbing trees for a good view.
Suddenly, that 11-year anniversary is taking on a different meaning. That's how long it has been since Chalmers won before the home crowd, and his odds are looking far better than they were Friday when Woods had a three-shot lead.
"I don't think anybody is sort of sitting around trying to hand the trophy to anybody else," Chalmers said. "I think everyone is fighting to shoot the lowest score they can."
Nitties spent the first two rounds playing behind Woods, coping with fans who are allowed to stand in crosswalks and surround every green that Woods plays.
He gets to play behind him again Sunday, and that's a good thing, for he no longer trails. Nitties, who easily kept his PGA Tour card in his rookie season in America, was surprised that he was playing in the final group without Woods joining him.
"I want to be playing with Tiger. He's my idol. It's disappointing," Nitties said. He paused, then smiled before adding, "It's not that disappointing."
Along with being tied for the lead, Nitties is hopeful he can contain his emotions playing before the largest gallery of his career.
"It's a special kind of week," he said.
Woods, who received a $3 million appearance fee to play the Australian Masters, stretched his lead to four shots with his long birdie putt on the second hole. He went 12 more holes before making another birdie.
His lead was gone four holes later as American Jason Dufner outplayed him with three straight birdies. Dufner took the lead for the first time with a 40-foot birdie putt on the eighth, only to scramble for a bogey on the ninth. He didn't make a birdie the rest of the way, dropping shots on the 16th and 17th for a 71 to tie for fourth at 8-under 208 with Cameron Percy of Australia.
Still in the hunt is Michael Sim, who already earned his PGA Tour card for next year by winning three times on the Nationwide Tour. He shot a 69 and was four shots behind, along with Stuart Appleby, who had a 71.
Adam Scott made a double bogey late in his round of 69 and was at 5-under 211, on the periphery of contention.
Woods is only hopeful he got his bad round out of the way.
"There was no gray area. I didn't have any shots that were borderline," he said.