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Adam Scott, with a reduced schedule, opens with a 66 to share lead at Doral
Watson raced off to an eagle-birdie start, then survived a few errant shots coming home on the Blue Monster for a 5-under 67, giving him a three-shot lead and putting him on the verge of his first World Golf Championship.
"All in all, it was a great day," he said.
His optimism was tempered not so much by the few guys chasing him, rather a golf course that for Watson remains an acquired taste.
"The challenge is the Blue Monster," Watson said.
It was more of a pushover in moderate wind, with Rory McIlroy thinking about a 59 with six holes to play, Tiger Woods making an early charge up the leaderboard and a dozen players signing for a 67 or better.
Watson was at 17-under 199.
He will play in the final group Sunday with PGA champion Keegan Bradley, who had a bogey-free 66 and was at 14-under 202. Justin Rose was tied for the lead through 11 holes until Watson found his groove and Rose made too many mistakes. Rose three-putted from long range on the 18th for a 69, leaving him tied with Bradley but no longer in the final group.
"Three back, it's a lot to Bubba on this golf course," Rose said. "But at least there's not a lot of guys ahead of you. There's only one guy at 17 under, and the rest of the pack is right there, so it doesn't take much."
Indeed, only one other player was within five shots of the lead. Peter Hanson of Sweden nearly holed a bunker shot on the 18th hole and shot 69, leaving him at 12-under 204.
Matt Kuchar (66) and Zach Johnson (67) were another shot behind. Adam Scott looked as though he might give Watson a run until the Australian started missing short putts, the pulled his tee shot into the water on the 18th and made double bogey. Scott dropped four shots over the last three holes.
McIlroy played the last six holes in 2 over and still shot 65, while Woods failed to do much after his birdie-birdie-birdie start. He twice made bogey on the par 5s and shot 68. They were eight shots behind.
The wind has been decreasing since the opening round, and so have the scores.
McIlroy hit two fluffy wedges at the start of his round, but he atoned for the second one by chipping in for birdie, and away he went. McIlroy shot 30 on the front nine without making birdie on the two par 5s, then made up for that with a fairway metal into about 18 feet for an eagle on No. 10. That put him 10 under for the tournament, only two off the lead.
Watson was still on the practice range, though, and this was a day when just about everyone went low.
Still, for a short time it looked as though McIlroy and Woods were going to resume their golf from last week at the Honda Classic. McIlroy was walked down the 12th fairway when he could hear a big cheer next to him as Woods, who opened with three straight birdies, made another one at No. 6. That put him at 9 under.
Neither of them could keep it going the rest of the round.
McIlroy hit a good chip from short of the par-5 12th, with his right foot deep in the sand and his left foot on the hill, and converted that into a birdie that put him one shot behind. He was 9 under for the day through 12 holes, and the kid couldn't help but think of a 59.
"You're thinking four (birdies) of the last six and here we go," McIlroy said. "But obviously, it didn't happen like that."
McIlroy made bogey from a poor lie in the bunker on the 14th, and then turned a birdie hole into a bad bogey on the par-4 16th then his lob wedge from the rough barely reached the green. He had to remind himself that 65 wasn't awful.
Graeme McDowell played with McIlroy and got swept up in some great golf. McDowell did OK, too, with a 67. It just seemed worse.
"He's just so impressive to watch," McDowell said. "Felt like I was shooting 80. I had to keep reminding myself I was 5-under par."
Woods, meanwhile, made a bad bogey on the par-5 eighth when he pulled a 2-iron over the green, dumped his third shot in the bunker and couldn't get up-and-down. He also took a penalty shot on the par-5 12 and made bogey, and his momentum was gone.
Doral is the only course left on his regular PGA Tour schedule where he has never finished out of the top 10. That streak remains in play, though he is too far back from the leaders to be considered a serious threat.
"The scores being as low as they are, the winning score is probably going to be in the 20s," he said. "So you're going to have to take care of those par 5s."
Even though both flirted with contention, neither was a factor late in the day.
Watson had a four-shot lead over Rose going to the par-3 ninth, and Rose showed how quickly things could change. He made birdie as Watson three-putted, a two-shot swing. Watson misjudged a chip and had to settle for par on the 10th, while Rose got up-and-down from a bunker for birdie. Rose made his fourth straight birdie on the 11th and was tied for the lead.
Watson hit a man with his tee shot on the 12th, but wound up making a 15-foot birdie to regain the lead, and he stretched it from there. His one nervous moment came on the 16th, when he caught too much ball out of the sand and it was flew well over the green, headed for a pond Watson didn't even know was there. The ball hit a tower, and he escaped with bogey.
DIVOTS: Thomas Bjorn went 49 holes without a bogey until a double bogey on the 14th. He then made bogey two of the next four holes for a 75, falling from contention. ... McIlroy is among those happy to see Donald Trump has purchased Doral. Given the low scoring, McIlroy said it was a resort course and needs work. "It was a tough test 15 years ago, but now it's just outdated," he said. "They definitely need to do something with it, and it's great to see that Trump is taking over the place."