Baird takes two-shot lead at Open, Woods steady but far behind

tiger woods
Getty Images
Tiger Woods broke 70 in back-to-back rounds for the first time since his 69-69 start at Torrey Pines in his first tournament of the year.
Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

Series: PGA Tour

Published: Saturday, October 08, 2011 | 9:45 p.m.

Briny Baird picked out his line and pulled off the shot, a driver that settled 15 feet from the cup and led to eagle on the 17th hole Saturday that staked him to a two-shot lead in the Open.

Despite a bogey from the hazard on the final hole at CordeValle, Baird had a 7-under 64 to give himself a small cushion over Ernie Els and Paul Casey, two players who have a bit more experience winning.

That's not saying much -- Baird has never won at all.

He has gone 347 tournaments over 12 years without hoisting a trophy on the PGA Tour. This is only the third time he has been atop the leaderboard going into the final round, the last occasion at Disney seven years ago.

So how does Baird treat Sunday at CordeValle?

"Whatever I thought about the other times, throw that out the window," Baird said. "At Disney, I just played so-so. Unless you have an eight-shot lead, so-so is not going to cut it. If I can feel tomorrow like I did today ... of course, if I knew how to do that, I'd be something."

Mediocre play most likely won't cut it at the Open.

Even as Els settled into disappointing pars on the easier holes down the stretch, and Casey kept in the hunt throughout most of the sunny day along the vineyards at CordeValle, there were plenty of other players lining up behind them.

Tiger Woods wasn't among them. Woods put together back-to-back rounds in the 60s for the first time since the start of the season. It wasn't enough, though, and Woods knew it.

After making a mess of the par 3s, Woods had to settle for a 3-under 68 that put him in the middle of the pack.

Woods was the first to tee off -- on the back nine -- and while two straight birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 pulled him within three shots, the leaders were in the group ahead of him and just getting started.

It was too beautiful of a day at CordeValle, with bright sunshine and barely a breeze. The pins were accessible. Everyone was making birdies. Woods didn't make enough.

"The golf course could have been had today," Woods said. "Guys can take it deep out there."

In his first PGA Tour event in seven weeks -- and his last official PGA Tour event of the year -- Woods was still wading in water. After two early birdies in his round, he had a chip from just off the green at No. 16 lip out of the cup, then didn't come close to driving the green on the par-4 17th even though it required a straight tee shot to a pin in the middle of the putting surface.

He was at 4-under 209, in a tie for 38th and nine shots behind going into the final round.

Woods at least broke 70 in back-to-back rounds for the first time since his 69-69 start at Torrey Pines in his first tournament of the year. He finished poorly that week and tied for 44th.

Woods missed nearly four months with left leg injuries he suffered at the Masters, and said he didn't have enough time to practice when he returned to play poorly in two events. He failed to qualify for the FedExCup playoffs, giving him a nearly two-month break.

"I was very close to really putting it together on the front nine -- birdie 17 and 18, and all of a sudden, I'm 5 under," Woods said.

He didn't, and he wasn't.

His tee shot on the 17th, which played only 294 yards over a pond, was pulled badly to the left in deep grass around a bunker, and Woods chopped it out across the green. He hit two good shots on the 18th, only to miss an 8-foot birdie putt.

"It's getting better," Woods said. "I'm improving day by day, which is good. Obviously, tomorrow I need to improve a lot and make the putts and post a really low one tomorrow."

Baird was at 13-under 200, making him the outright 54-hole leader for the first time in his career.

Els had a two-shot lead when he blistered a 5-wood out of the first cut of rough on the par-5 ninth and barely cleared the water to set up a short eagle putt. But he three-putted for bogey on the 10th, and that took away his moment.

He had to settle for a 67, while Casey recovered from his tee shot into the hazard for par and a 68.

Adam Hadwin, the Canadian who contended at his national open in July, was 5 under in a five-hole stretch on the back nine for a 64 that put him at 10-under 203 with a large group that included Charlie Wi (64), Bryce Molder (65) and 21-year-old Bud Cauley, who left Alabama to turn pro. Walking along side Els -- the Big Easy looked like a giant -- Cauley held his own with a 68.

Woods said he figured the conditions would allow for a 62 or 63. He probably didn't think it would come from Jim Renner, who made the cut on the number Saturday morning when the fog-delayed second round was completed, then shot 62 and is five shots behind.

A week ago in Las Vegas, Kevin Na ended an 0-for-210 drought on the PGA Tour by winning for the first time. Baird has that beat by miles, and his $11.9 million in career earnings is the most of anyone without a tour win.

Baird didn't take any inspiration out of Na finally breaking through, just as it didn't move him when Harrison Frazar finally won this year in Memphis and Tim Clark cashed in at The Players Championship a year ago.

"I don't look at it and say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' My world is not going to come to an end if I play well and win the golf tournament. It's more of a bucket list," Baird said.

Els hasn't had a top-10 all year, and he only added this Fall Series event to work on his game, work out of this slump, and try to get more comfortable with the belly putter. It helps, too, that Hasso Plattner owns CordeValle. Plattner also is a founder of SAP, one of Els' primary corporate sponsors.

"Sometimes you've got to listen to the boss," Els said, laughing. "He's a good friend. It's a good golf course. I'm glad I'm here."

Els has been around long enough -- and has won enough -- that he hasn't forgotten how. Casey found that out himself last week when he won on the Korean Golf Tour.

They will be in the last group with Baird, who still doesn't know that feeling of winning.