By Michael Beaven
Beacon Journal sports writer
A round of 18 holes remains in the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, and the champion seems to be determined.
Tiger Woods set himself apart from the competition Friday and maintained that position on a sun-splashed Saturday with a 2-under-par 68 at Firestone Country Club in Akron.
Woods’ 68 came one day after matching the South Course record with a 9-under 61 in the rain. He enters the final round today at 15 under (66-61-68), 7 shots ahead of his nearest competitor in a field that includes 73 golfers.
Woods’ play was far from perfect Saturday, but it was also not a disaster. His goals Saturday were simple — post a score under par and put himself in a prime spot to win his eighth tournament in Akron.
“I didn’t quite have it, but I scored,” Woods said. “That’s the name of the game, posting a number, and I did today. Grinded my way around that golf course today. It was playing a little blustery.”
Henrik Stenson of Sweden is second after three rounds, 7 shots behind Woods. Jason Dufner of the United States is third at 8 shots behind.
Woods, 37, opened Saturday with birdies on Nos. 1 and 2. He followed that with pars from holes 3 through 8 and then bogeyed 9.
His back nine featured birdies on Nos. 10, 13 and 17, bogeys on 14 and 16 and four pars.
Woods made a birdie on 13 with a chip shot from 39 feet, 7 inches away. The shot drew a large ovation and one spectator in the gallery said to another: “Book it. It’s over.”
“I piped a drive down there,” Woods said of 13. “I was stuck right in between clubs, and I tried to hit a little softy 7[-iron] and flipped it left. The pitch shot, I had a decent lie, but I had a lot of green to work with which was nice and the greens were soft.
“All I had to do was throw the ball somewhere and land it just over the collar and it was going to get down to the hole. Certainly wasn’t a shot I was trying to make, just trying to get it down there where I could get a par and just get out of Dodge and dodge a bullet. Just happened to go in. That was a big bonus.”
Stenson and Dufner each shot a 67 Saturday to stay in contention, but both acknowledged that it will be tough to catch Woods and surpass him as tries for his 79th PGA Tour win.
Stenson, 37, birdied Nos. 2, 9, 10, 15 and 17, and bogeyed 4 and 8.
“I’m just going to go out there and try to play another solid round of golf [today],” Stenson said. “I had a great round. Hopefully the worst round of the week was [Friday].
Dufner, 36, rose up the leaderboard with birdies on Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4. He bogeyed 5, birdied 6 and then parred four holes in a row. He birdied 11 and 13, but bogeyed 12 and 18.
“I’m right there up close to the top of the leaderboard, not really close to what Tiger is doing, though,” Dufner said. “I’ve been struggling a little bit this year, but it’s nice to get here and put some good scores [up].”
American Bill Haas is tied for fourth with England’s Luke Donald and Chris Wood. They are 9 shots off the pace. Donald shot a 68 Saturday, Haas a 69 and Wood a 70.
Wood said he enjoyed playing alongside his golf idol, Woods.
“It was probably better than I could have hoped for,” Wood said. “Totally an experience for me. Just the first tee, the noise. He chipped in on 13, I’ve never heard a noise quite so loud on the golf course, but loved every minute.”
Wood marveled at watching Woods recover from poor shots with solid scrambling shots.
“If he misses the green or he’s out of position, it’s absolute master class in damage limitation,” Wood said. “I learned a lot from him scoring.”
Spain’s Miguel A. Jimenez posted the best score Saturday with a 65 courtesy of six birdies and one bogey. He is tied for seventh at 5 under with American Keegan Bradley, the 2012 Bridgestone champion.
Australia’s Adam Scott, the 2011 Bridgestone champion, and American Zach Johnson are tied for ninth at 3 under.
Woods and Stenson will tee off at 2:05 p.m. today on No. 1 as the final twosome.
“It would take something spectacular on my behalf or any of the other guys around me and obviously a very, very poor [round] for him,” Stenson said about possibly catching Woods. “We’ll see, I’m just going to try and play my game. I am excited to go out and play with him [today]. He’s obviously playing great, and it’ll be a good test, a good measurement. We might just be there for watching the final victory lap.”
Woods has won 52 of the 56 tournaments in which he has held at least a share of the 54-hole lead since joining the PGA Tour in 1996. His record is 41-2 when he holds the outright lead after 54 holes.
“I just want to go out there and execute my game plan,” Woods said. “Whatever game plan I’m going to implement [today], just go execute it. It all starts with what the weather is doing, and then I build it from there.”
Michael Beaven can be reached at 330-996-3829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Bridgestone Invitational blog at http://www.ohio.com/blogs/bridgestone-invitational. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MBeavenABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.