Searching for a Hollow victory
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The hours, and the company, are far better these days for George McNeill, who not all that long ago was putting in long days in a Florida pro shop, only dreaming about the opportunity he will have Sunday.
A nearly anonymous one-time PGA Tour winner, McNeill, 33, finds himself in the mix at the Quail Hollow Championship with a couple of guys with green jackets in their closets, one who was likening the setup here to that of a major championship.
"It's like they were auditioning for one," Tiger Woods said after bogeying the final two holes at Quail Hollow to drop two shots behind fellow Masters winner Zach Johnson. Woods' 2-under-par 70 left him tied for second with McNeill and Lucas Glover.
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Woods played some of his finest golf to date since returning from offseason knee surgery on the back nine after figuring out something with his swing. He hit six of seven fairways and made three birdies to take the lead, only to bogey two of the final three holes known as "The Green Mile."
"I had two 7-irons and made two bogeys -- not the way you want to finish," Woods said. "But at least I've got a chance tomorrow."
He's got more than a chance, and he might take some consolation in knowing that McNeill also bogeyed the last two holes and that Glover bogeyed the 18th. Then again, Johnson birdied the 17th, making for a three-shot swing compared to Woods.
Woods, 33, is chasing his second PGA Tour title of the year and 67th of his career. But early on it looked very much as if he would be at least tied for the lead -- where he's been nearly unbeatable: Woods is 44-for-47 on the PGA Tour with at least a share of the 54-hole lead.
But in five of his last 11 victories, Woods has come from behind, including his most recent, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he made up a five-stroke deficit against Sean O'Hair in the final round.
Johnson was a witness to history that day when Woods shot a final-round 67 that included a dramatic 15-foot birdie putt on Bay Hill's final green.
"It was unbelievable drama," he said. "I tried to stay in my own world. It's kind of hard when you're seeing what you're seeing. Obviously Tiger, when he needs to step up, he does it. It was impressive to watch."
But it is Johnson whom Woods will be trying to catch this time. Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, is a five-time PGA Tour winner and ranked 27th in the world. He won last fall at the Valero Texas Open and this year at the Sony Open.
Johnson began the day tied with Woods at 7 under par and was aided by an eagle at the par-5 seventh hole. He recovered from a mistake at the 14th -- where he chipped across the green and into the water -- to birdie the 15th and 17th holes.
Woods, who has played the three tough finishing holes in 4 over par for the week, birdied all four par-5s and had his best driving round of the week, hitting 9 of 14 fairways. He also hit 12 of 18 greens in regulation, although he needed 29 putts -- his highest total in three rounds.
"I found my golf swing a little bit," Woods said. "It was nice. I hit some good shots. I was able to control my flight. I know what I did wrong on [hole No.] 9 [leading to a bogey], so I tried not to do that again. And I hit a good one down 10 and basically hit it good from then on.
"This is very similar to a major. We were kind of joking out there today, [that] they're trying to audition for a major championship down the road. The only difference is there's no rough right now. You add rough, make it a par-70 and there you go."
Woods, of course, knows a thing or two about such conditions.
"Yeah, I kind of like major championships," said the winner of 14 of them.
And then there is McNeill.
His is one of those storybook tales, a pro for more than 10 years -- after playing at Florida State -- who just couldn't make it to the PGA Tour. His career stagnating, he took a job in 2006 as an assistant pro at Forest Country Club in Fort Myers, Fla., where he worked 12-hour days four days a week.
"It's something I definitely do not ever want to do again," he said. "That's what drove me back, got my competitive juices flowing again, and I had a little different mindset when I came back out."
McNeill went to the PGA Tour's Qualifying Tournament that fall for the ninth time and made it through all three stages, winning the final and earning his PGA Tour card for the first time. Late in the 2007 season, he won the Fry.com Open, and that put him in a tee time category with Woods.
Since then, they have played together twice -- at last year's Buick Invitational, where McNeill shot 72-72 and went on to a tie for 48th while Woods shot 67-65 and cruised to another victory at Torrey Pines.
On Sunday, they will be together again, this time in the penultimate pairing.
McNeill had the misfortunate of being on the 18th fairway Saturday when the horn sounded, halting play because of lightning in the area. He retreated to the clubhouse, where he watched a 50-1 long shot claim the Kentucky Derby -- circumstances not dissimilar to what he faces Sunday.
"If I'm that good, I'd be surprised," he said jokingly. "To be with Tiger in the final group, you've got to be doing something right. I look at it like an opportunity to go out and show everybody that I can play a little bit, too."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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