HOYLAKE, England – Tiger Woods has plenty of competition at the British Open — and maybe another duel with Sergio Garcia in the making. The Spaniard surged up the leaderboard at Royal Liverpool with an eye-opening 65 Saturday that could have been a few strokes better, positioning himself again to go for the first major championship of his career.
As clouds drifted over the course but the breeze off the Irish Sea remained remarkably calm, Woods clung to the lead he had at the start of the day. He was 1 under through 12 holes and 13 under overall, one stroke better than Garcia.
Ernie Els started the day one shot behind Woods and playing in the final group, but the Big Easy dropped a couple of strokes by going 1 over through 13 holes. Woods was not playing nearly as well as he did during a 67-65 start, but still well enough to maintain the lead.
Meanwhile, Garcia was already in the clubhouse with a 7-under round that matched the best score of the tournament. He holed out a 9-iron for eagle at No. 2 and posted a 6-under 29 at the turn.
"I really had it going on the front nine," he said. "I felt very confident with my swing. I hit a lot of good shots."
Garcia didn't hit as many on the back nine, missing a 6-footer for birdie at the 11th and settling for pars on the first two par 5s — both good chances to shave strokes off the score. But he did make a two-putt birdie at No. 18, giving him plenty of momentum going into the final round.
"I played well on the back nine," Garcia said. "I had a lot of birdie chances. I would like to have made a few more putts. I was a little bit tentative, but not too bad."
Woods and Garcia had a memorable Sunday duel at the 1999 PGA Championship, when a then-19-year-old Spaniard known as "El Nino" dazzled fans with his youthful enthusiasm and looked to be a rival-in-the-making for the world's greatest player.
But Woods held on for a one-stroke victory at Medina and now has captured 10 major championships. Garcia is still after his first.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I did what I had to do to give myself a chance."
Jim Furyk and Angel Cabrera both shot 66 and were at 11-under 205. Japan's Hideto Tanihara was another shot back after a 66 of his own. Chris DiMarco, playing with a heavy heart after his mother died suddenly a few weeks ago, was solidly in contention — 2 under for the round and 11 under for the tournament with three holes to play.
Phil Mickelson was nowhere to be found. Lefty bogeyed three straight holes to finish the front side, didn't make a birdie until the 16th and even an eagle at the final hole was only good enough for a 1-over 73.
At 213 after 54 holes, he walked off the course with far too much ground to make up on Sunday.
"It's going to be an interesting day watching the leaders play," Mickelson said. "There's a lot of birdies out there with the wind not as strong as we were expecting. I just didn't do it."
Woods was back in a familiar position after missing the cut in the U.S. Open. The gallery was still buzzing about his eagle on Friday, when he holed out a 4-iron from 209 yards at the difficult 14th hole — the signature shot in a 65. Els also shot 65, putting himself in the last group.
But Woods and Els were shakier on day three. Els bogeyed the first hole, his playing partner did the same at the second and suddenly the two front-runners found themselves tied with Garcia, who had teed off 1 1/2 hours earlier.
Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open winner, was in contention for his second major championship. He had a run of three straight birdies on the front side and two more to start the back before a bogey at No. 12 slowed his momentum a bit.
Fully recovered from a knee injury sustained during a vacation to the Mediterranean after last year's British Open, Els was still in contention for a run at his fourth major title.
The Big Easy won the 2002 Open at Muirfield to go along with two U.S. Open titles, but this is the first time he's seriously contended at one of golf's biggest events since a three-putt at the 72nd hole cost him a spot in a playoff at the 2004 PGA Championship.
Els pulled out driver at the first hole and hit a soaring shot that just caught the wispy rough along the left side of the fairway, leaving him with a sand wedge to the green. But he hit a terrible second shot, catching the front left bunker, and couldn't get up and down to save par.
Els got his stroke back at the next hole, sinking a 25-footer for birdie, while Woods ran into trouble. His approach caught the sand and he wound up taking a bogey that forced him to share the lead with two others.
Woods, the greatest finisher in golf, never has squandered a 36-hole lead in a major, carrying a 6-0 record into this weekend as he tries to become the first back-to-back British Open champion since Tom Watson in 1982-83.
That said, Woods wasn't taking anything for granted, not with so many big names poised to keep him from keeping the claret jug for another year.
This was the first time Woods and Els have played in the final group at a major since the last round of the 2000 U.S. Open, although that was hardly a fair fight. Woods had a 10-shot lead, and wound up winning by 15.
This one looks like it will be a lot closer.
"It will be exciting,' Mickelson said. "I just wish I was one of the leaders."