Woods wary of Johnson as he heads to Sherwood final

Reuters, THOUSAND OAKS, California

Mon, Dec 09, 2013 - Page 20

Tiger Woods was in good position heading into yesterday’s final round to clinch his sixth victory at the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, but he will keep a wary eye on Zach Johnson, his closest challenger.

Johnson has finished second to Woods twice at the event hosted by the world No. 1 and he gave the 14-times major champion a battle royale in 2011 when they dueled for supremacy down the stretch.

Woods ending up winning that year’s edition by a single shot, but needed birdies on the final two holes at Sherwood Country Club to keep the gritty Johnson at bay.

“Zach’s not going anywhere,” Woods told reporters after maintaining a two-stroke lead over fellow American Johnson by shooting a level-par 72 in difficult scoring conditions in Saturday’s third round.

“He’s consistent, he’s tough and he’s proven that he can win major championships,” Woods said of the 2077 Masters champion.

Woods trailed Johnson by a shot going into the final round of the 2011 World Challenge and went on to seal victory with a birdie-birdie finish, draining a 15-footer at the 17th and a six-footer at the last.

On Saturday, Woods ground out a level-par 72 in blustery winds with several tough pin positions at Sherwood to end the third round at 11-under 205.

In glorious late afternoon sunshine after a rainy start to the day, Woods rolled in a 12-foot birdie putt at the par-four last to retain control of the event.

“It was a tough day,” Woods, who frequently backed off shots as the breezes shifted, told reporters after offsetting four birdies with four bogeys. “The wind was all over the place. It was really tough to pull clubs and the greens were softer.”

Johnson was alone in second place after sinking an 18-foot birdie putt at the last for a 72. Bubba Watson, last year’s Masters champion, was a further two strokes back at seven-under after a 69.

Only four players in the elite field of 18 dipped under-par for the day, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy the best of them with a six-birdie 68 that left him a distant 13 shots off the pace.

The scoring average on Saturday was 72.998, despite preferred lies being in operation due to damp conditions and a high-quality field with 12 of the world’s 20 best players.

“Today was tough,” Johnson said. “It was just hard. I mean all-around survival slash commitment, trust, et cetera, et cetera, it was brutal.”