IRVING, Texas -- Tiger Woods faced a number of challenges yesterday on a steamy Texas afternoon in the third round of the Byron Nelson Classic. Some came from the other players in contention. Most came from within, in particular from the 21-year-old star's seemingly flawless swing.
Both were difficult, but not difficult enough for Woods to falter.
Despite playing his worst round of the tournament, Woods withstood the competition and his own lack of consistency to shoot a 3-under-par 67 for a 54-hole total of 15-under 195 going into the final round at the TPC at Las Colinas.
Seeking his third victory of the year and his fifth since turning pro last summer, Woods holds a two-shot lead over five players. Only one of those players, 15-year veteran Dan Forsman, has won as many PGA Tour events as Woods. Two others -- David Berganio and Lee Rinker -- have yet to win. Jim Furyk has won twice, and Mike Standly has won once.
Even the lack of big-name contenders -- the anti-Tigers, so to speak -- doesn't make Woods feel comfortable.
"I'm going to have to play a lot better tomorrow," said Woods, who shot 64 in each of the first two rounds of his first event since winning the Masters by a record 12 shots last month.
"There are so many guys who can win this tournament. All you need is someone to get a hot hand with the flat stick and they're going to shoot 61 or 62 or maybe 63 and leap-frog over everybody and win."
After sharing the second-round lead with Woods, Rinker played an abbreviated game of leap frog yesterday with the game's most celebrated player. When Woods followed three straight birdies with two straight bogeys to close out the front nine that dropped him to 13-under par, Rinker jumped into the lead with birdies on the same two holes.
But Rinker bogeyed the par-5 16th and Woods birdied to regain the lead. Woods added to his lead with a five-foot birdie putt on the par-4 18th hole. But the two late birdies didn't give him a false sense of security. After watching the end of the Houston-Seattle NBA playoff game in the locker room, Woods headed back to the range.
"I just know I've got to work on my swing," Woods said. "And I know what I'm doing wrong. It's just a matter of hitting enough balls where I don't have to worry about it."
The problem, Woods said, is "causing a position on the downswing to get stuck" and resulted in a number of errant shots, the first coming when he hit his approach on the 396-yard, par-4 sixth hole into a swale in back of the green.
He then bogeyed after failing to hold his chip on the sloped green. His bogeys on the par-4 11th and 12th holes were the result of a couple of bad swings off the tee.
Woods also had a tough time judging the gusts of winds that blew as the 90-degree day wore on. They caused him to see shots seemingly headed for the flag suddenly knocked down 30 yards short of the green, as happened on the 457-yard, par-4 No. 8. He narrowly missed hitting his tee shot on the 196-yard par 3 17th into a pond.
"It wasn't me," Woods said. "When a gust knocks the ball straight up in the air, then you get Mutomboed from there."
At least the field here isn't getting Mutomboed -- or is that Tigered? -- as it did at Augusta National. Even Rinker, a 36-year-old journeyman whose tour history is as spotty as Woods' is spectacular, didn't flinch despite two early bogeys.
The biggest mistake Rinker made on the 545-yard, par-5 16th hole didn't fluster him. After hitting a decent drive, he opted to hit a safe 7-iron short of the fairway bunker, which sits 96 yards from the hole, instead of trying to use a driver or 3-wood to get it close to the green.
"I had temporary brain lock," said Rinker, who proceeded to leave his second shot 112 yards short of the green, his third shot also short of the green, and then missed an eight-footer for par before closing out a 1-under par 69 with a couple of pars.
"But I was proud of the way I handled it. In the past, I would have been chapped off."
Rinker seems slightly bewildered to be in contention. His pro career began, and nearly ended, in 1984. He had a miserable rookie season and lost his PGA Tour card. He then spent nearly four years as an assistant pro at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Ohio and a couple of more years on the Nike Tour before regaining his card in 1995.
"I got out here early and I wasn't ready," said Rinker, who came into this tournament ranked 140th this year, with a little more than $43,000 in earnings. "I wasn't ready mentally and I wasn't ready physically. That's why it's incredible what a guy like Tiger is doing. He is awesome. One day I can tell my grandchildren that I played with him."
Rinker is not alone in his awe.
Forsman, who made it as high as 10th in money winnings five years ago, said that he would have loved the opportunity to play with Woods in the final group today. (Berganio, who shot 66 yesterday, will.)
Forsman, who missed the cut in the Masters, watched Woods win the Masters from the gallery on the final day. He called it a "a real eye-opening experience. I was amazed at how easy it looked. I fantasize about my game looking that easy."
Woods wasn't fantasizing about anything late yesterday afternoon.
He was on the practice tee, working the kinks out of his seemingly flawless swing.
Pub Date: 5/18/97