By Mark Lamport-Stokes
THOUSAND OAKS, California (Reuters) - Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, who relishes playing golf in California, edged closer to his first win in two years by ending the third round of the World Challenge with a two-shot lead.
The Northern Irishman, who despite several close calls has endured a barren title run worldwide since his playoff victory at the World Challenge in 2010, fired a flawless four-under-par 68 on Saturday to post a 13-under total of 203.
"I played very solidly again today," McDowell told reporters after sinking two long-range birdie putts early on to maintain his grip on the tournament. "Bogey free is always nice on any golf course.
McDowell said he was very happy with the way he has been hitting the golf ball.
"It'll be a nice way to finish the year if I can get a good win tomorrow, but there will be a few guys on that board that will have a little something to say about it for sure," he said.
McDowell's closest challenger was first-round leader Keegan Bradley who matched the day's best round with a six-birdie 67 at a rain-soaked Sherwood Country Club to finish at 11 under.
Tournament host and defending champion Tiger Woods, bidding for his fourth victory this year, was a further three strokes back after narrowly missing a seven-foot birdie putt at the last to card a 69.
Woods failed to birdie any of the five par-fives on the hilly course that winds its way below the Santa Monica mountains as he ended the day level with fellow American Bo Van Pelt, who birdied the par-four last for a 70.
"It was wet out there," Woods said about the saturated Sherwood layout after mixing four birdies with a lone bogey. "It was a little sloppy early, and overall I thought it was tough to get the ball close today.
"I didn't play the par-fives well and didn't play (hole) eight well again. I missed a few opportunities out there. I felt like I played decent enough to get to 10 under, to get to double digits, and just didn't do it.
"As of right now I'm five back. I'm going to have to shoot a low one tomorrow and see what happens."
On a soggy morning, 2010 U.S. Open champion McDowell began the third round with a commanding three-shot lead but that was swiftly trimmed to just one after the fast-starting Bradley birdied two of the first three holes.
However, McDowell got his putter working in scintillating fashion, sinking birdie putts from 30 feet at the par-five second and the par-four fourth to restore his three-stroke advantage.
Though American Bradley picked up another shot at the sixth to apply early pressure on McDowell, the Northern Irishman maintained his grip on the tournament with further birdies at the ninth and 11th before parring the last seven holes.
"It would have been nice to pick a few more (shots) up on the way in, I guess, finishing with seven straight pars when there are some chances out there," said McDowell, who was runner-up on his debut here in 2009.
"I played disciplined golf to some of those tighter pins, couldn't seem to get anything to drop.
"But two shots ahead going into Sunday, I'll take that any week, anywhere, any time. It's right where you need to be," added the Northern Irishman who clinched his first major title at the 2010 U.S. Open held at Pebble Beach, California.
Bradley, who became the first player to win a major using a belly putter at the 2011 PGA Championship, was delighted to be in a position to win his first tournament since the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August.
"I feel really good out there," said the 26-year-old, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour. "It's so fun to be back in the hunt again. It's been a while. It's been a few months.
"Graeme loves this place. He just has such an unbelievable record here. I'll be looking forward to playing with him tomorrow. It'll be a good time."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)