AKRON, Ohio (Reuters) - It is rare for Tiger Woods to have a smile on his face after being outscored by a playing partner but that was the case on Saturday when he broke par for the first time at this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
While red-hot South African Branden Grace birdied six of the first 10 holes on the way to a four-under 66 in the third round, Woods finally felt comfortable on the slick greens at Firestone Country Club as he carded a 68.
A seven-times winner of the elite World Golf Championships (WGC) event, the American world number two mixed three birdies with a lone bogey before finishing at even-par 210 just as overnight leader Jim Furyk was starting his round.
“Today I hit the ball well and made some putts,” a relaxed-looking Woods told reporters after reaching 15 of 18 greens in regulation. “I thought I was playing pretty well through, I’ll say, 11 holes, but I was getting killed by my playing partner.”
Grace, a three-times champion on the 2012 European Tour, raced to the turn in a sizzling five-under-par 30 before picking up his sixth shot of the day at the par-four 10th where his approach settled within three feet of the hole.
“I thought I was playing well, but he was playing better,” Woods grinned. “So it was a good day. We both had some good rounds, and it was good to finish up on a positive note.”
Woods had struggled with his putting in the first two rounds at Firestone, totaling 62 putts while carding scores of 70 and 72.
“I hit the ball well enough to be in the top five and could have made a run just by being in that position if I would have putted well the first couple of days,” the 36-year-old said.
“I‘m not that far off and I’ve just got to play one solid round tomorrow ... and get ready for the PGA,” Woods added, referring to next week’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in South Carolina.
Asked what had made the difference in his putting after his struggles earlier this week, Woods replied: ”I just did some work yesterday and found some alignment, some posture things and got my feel back.
“My blade was releasing properly again, and it felt really comfortable.”
While Woods’s thoughts are already turning towards the final major of the year where he is a four-times champion, Grace savored the experience of playing alongside arguably the greatest golfer of all time for three days in a row.
In a clever pairing of ‘triple winners’, Bridgestone Invitational organizers bracketed Woods, who has triumphed three times on the 2012 PGA Tour, with in-form Grace for the first two rounds at Firestone.
“Getting that draw, just being the only guys that have won three times (on tour) this year, was pretty special, and I’ll remember that for a long time,” the 24-year-old South African said.
”I’ve learned a hell of a lot from playing with him. The way he plays shots, the way he handles himself and things like that has been great. He’s there because he is the best in the world.
“It’s nice to know that he’s everything that I hoped he would be,” added Grace. “He’s been my idol and my role model since I started playing golf. He’s pretty much the nicest guy I’ve ever played with.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Simon Evans