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Even as Tiger Woods plays conservatively, his opponents know they need to play the rounds of their lives on Sunday. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Even as Tiger Woods plays conservatively, his opponents know they need to play the rounds of their lives on Sunday. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Catching Woods is unlikely, but his chasers will give it a go

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Even Ernie Els admits it: The stats indicate that Tiger Woods is a huge favorite to take home the Wanamaker Trophy Sunday night. But Els and the rest of the players near the top plan to do everything they can to engineer a major upset at Southern Hills.

By Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.com Contributor

TULSA, Okla. -- He's up by three.

As usual, it feels more like 33.

Time to cue the graphics. Pull up the stats.

Remind everyone once more time that the best players in the game has never lost a major when he's held the 54-hole lead.

Should we also remind you he's gunning for his 13th major?

Tiger Woods is back. With a vengeance. And a presence that's got even those chasing him her at Southern Hills shaking their heads and wondering if anything stands between him and the 89th PGA Championship. His second consecutive, if you're counting. The fourth of his career.

Like Ernie Els said, as we twisted his arm, if we forced him to imagine himself as a fan on a couch, he'd bet the house on Tiger.

"You've got the best player in the world leading here, leading by a bunch, because we keep shooting ourselves in the foot," Els said.

Tiger separated himself from the field with a chills-up-and-down-your-spine 63 Friday that came within a horseshoe turn of being a major record 62. He called it a 62 1/2 and, well, no one was going to argue.

And Saturday? While the field was trying to make something happen, while players were firing at flags in sheer desperation, Tiger methodically dissected the course and plodded in with a 69. In the process, he stretched a two-shot lead to three. And, yes, call it 33.

"If you're trying to win a tournament like this," Scott Verplank said, shaking his head, "he's the wrong guy to let get out ahead of you."

Yet there he is, heading into the final 18 holes where he rules. And his playing partners fall apart.

His final-round scoring average in those dozen majors is 69.5; his playing partners' average? A collective 72.92.

His victim, er, partner this time around? Canadian Stephen Ames.

Can you say 9 and 8? That was the score Tiger beat him by in the first round of the 2006 World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship when Ames -- grinning -- said before the match that the way Tiger was hitting it, anything could happen.

He wasn't going there Saturday. But when pressed?

Ames, who tied for 10th at the U.S. Open and tied for 24th at the Masters this year, threw his hands up. "I'll admit now, he's better than all of us. He's better than all 250,000 who play the game."

Where did he come up with that number? Who knows? But he might want to sleep on the other stat -- Tiger's 39-3 in his career when leading after 54.

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Els knows the stats. He's seen the cloud of dust. And he enters Sunday with five shots and three players standing between himself and Tiger.

"The statistics will tell you, yes, it is over," Els said. But as a competitor, I can't sit there and tell you it's over. I can't ever do that.

"So I gotta play the round of my life. We've all played rounds of our lives, and he's got to have a couple of mistakes. He's unbelievably solid at the moment, as we all can see, and full of a lot of confidence."

Just think coming from behind at last week's World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational and winning by eight.

Woods was amused Tuesday when everyone kept mentioning this wasn't his kind of course. That he didn't play courses with doglegs well. That this wasn't his year.

Yes, he was streaky at Augusta. He never got the feel at Oakmont. He didn't hit his irons close enough at Carnoustie. And he finished -- in order -- tied for second, tied for second and tied for 12th.

But here? He's taken the conservative route. Yes, even with the 63. And his 69 Saturday? Classic Tiger with a lead. The four players right behind him shot 69, too. And he padded his lead.

The only numbers in Tiger's head right now are the one he feels he needs to shoot to win -- and no, he's not saying -- and that number in the distance. Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors.

Everyone else is thinking about that 12-0. And no one's sure what it will take to take him down.

"I'm assuming that as he gets older, his skills will diminish," Verplank said, drawing a laugh. "Of course, he may quit before then."

He paused.

"Somebody has to play phenomenal."

Yes, it's that simple. Or so it seems.

We can remind you that anything can happen. Tiger could wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Someone could throw a 63 at him. Southern Hills could take revenge.

But even then, you get the feeling Tiger would find a way to win.

No one's playing this course better. Or putting better. Or accepting the challenge of boring -- think chess game at Hoylake -- better.

But the biggest reason? Just look at his face. Going 0-for-2007's majors is simply not an option.

The excitement ground to a halt Saturday afternoon as players tried their best to explain how Tiger can do what he does; how he can make three shots seem like 33.

It all, Arron Oberholser said, comes down to experience. Tiger's won at every level, from age 5 on up.

"He has put those experiences in the memory bank and he uses them, and he draws on them," Oberholser said. "And he has so many of them. He has such an abundance from which to draw from. The rest of us don't have that many experiences to draw from."

Then there's that best-in-the-world thing.

"I think he would take Bobby Jones behind the woodshed, absolutely," Oberholser said. "You give Jones this equipment today, I think he would still take him behind the woodshed. No disrespect to Bobby Jones, but you're dealing with an athlete of just incredible ability. And no one in history has had the ability that Tiger has."

We're not telling you to the bet the house. But, honestly, the feeling you get, even from the players, is that Sunday afternoon Tiger will be one major closer to Jack.

But we'll leave you with one thought.

When asked if anyone could catch Tiger or if the race was over, Boo Weekley paused for a split second.

"I don't know. The good Lord knows that answer," he said. "Anything's possible. He's human, ain't he?"

We agree. Just maybe not when it comes to leading going into the final round of a major.


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