For nine holes, McDowell threw his best golf at Woods, and Woods counterpunched in a magnificent display on the breezy Blue Monster.
McDowell opened with a 20-foot eagle, Woods with back-to-back birdies. McDowell hit his approach to 10 feet on the third hole, and Woods followed with a shot 6 inches inside as both made birdie.
McDowell finally tied him for the lead with a 20-foot putt on the sixth hole, and he had a 10-foot birdie attempt on the seventh for the outright lead. The stroke was tentative, and the ball dipped on the low side.
And that was as close as McDowell could get.
Woods had a one-shot lead as they walked toward the green on the par-5 10th hole, with McDowell on the green in two and poised to catch him again.
It all turned so suddenly.
Woods hit another superb wedge to 6 feet for birdie, while McDowell's eagle attempt slid 4 feet by the cup, and he missed it coming back for par. McDowell was furious, slapping his leg in disgust. McDowell and Woods each had 6 feet for par on the 11th — Woods made, McDowell missed, his first bogey of the week.
That gave Woods a three-shot lead, and McDowell fell even further behind when he muffed a pitch behind the 14th green and took double bogey, and Woods hit a towering tee shot on the par-3 15th to 6 feet for birdie.
"The three-putt on 10 kind of rattled me a little bit, because Tiger didn't look like he was going to do anything wrong," McDowell said. "I really felt like I needed to be making putts like that."
McDowell at least stayed in the game, but after his putt across the length of the 18th green stopped inside a foot from the hole, he could only watch as Woods poured in another putt for yet another birdie, making the task on Sunday even more difficult.
The leaderboard still had the best golfers. Woods, however, separated himself from them.
Honda Classic winner Michael Thompson and Sergio Garcia each had a 67 and were at 11-under 205, along with Charl Schwartzel (69) and Keegan Bradley (69). Masters champion Bubba Watson could only manage a 71 and was eight shots behind.
Woods will be going for his second win of the year, an ominous sign with the Masters a month away. Woods has not won twice before the Masters in five years.
"All respect to the way he handled himself today and the way he played," McDowell said. "He's going to be a tough guy to catch. But according to the forecast tomorrow, we are going to have strong winds. I think that's an advantage to the rest of the field. ... With tough conditions tomorrow, hopefully we'll have a chance."