With one last chance to get a win in the 2018 season and put a stamp on one of the most astonishing comebacks in golf history, Tiger Woods looks ready to deliver.
Woods ignited his round — and fans around the course — with six birdies in his first seven holes before closing out a five-under 65 on a clear day at East Lake CC. Woods leads Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy by three with 18 holes to play.
Woods’s last title was at the 2013 Bridgestone Invitational, the capper to a five-win season that lifted him to No. 1 in the world. He won’t claim No. 1 this week, but his latest ascent is perhaps even more shocking. One year ago, Woods was recovering from his fourth back surgery, one that fused two discs, and his future in golf was murky at best. His world ranking slipped outside the top 1,000.
But since his return to pro golf last December, at an event he hosts in the Bahamas, he has been steadily climbing. Saturday may have been his boldest statement yet.
He started off by drilling a 21-footer for birdie on No. 1, and then rode the wave. An eight-footer on 3. Twenty-one feet on No. 4. A seven-footer on five. On the par-5 6th, an arrow-straight six-footer. Good, good, good, good, good. Woods was five under through six and had opened a four-shot lead on Rose, who was playing alongside Woods and had a front-row seat.
“It’s fun to watch, no one moves the needle like Tiger,” said Johnny Miller while perched in the tower during the NBC broadcast.
The fun continued on seven, where his approach landed in the left fringe but kicked onto the green and slowly curled to five feet. He poured in the putt, and for a moment you could’ve fired up a good, old-fashioned “59 Watch.”
🚨 This is not a drill. 🚨@TigerWoods is -6 thru 7.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 22, 2018
“Yeah, I got off to a nice start there,” Woods said afterward with a grin.”Left myself in good spots, too. I was able to take a run at some of the putts. Other than No. 3, every putt was uphill. It was nice. I could freewheel it, and they went in.”
On the par-3 9th Woods hit his first loose shot of the day, finishing his follow-through with one hand on the club as his ball sailed into thick rough left of the green. He played a tricky pitch to nine feet, but missed the sliding, downhill putt. It was his only blemish in a front-nine 30.
He rolled in yet another birdie on 12 to re-open a five-shot edge. But on the tough, par-3 15th over water, Woods released the club on the follow-through after again yanking the shot left of the green. He saved the par, but one hole later his luck ran out after he left his pitch shot from right of the green short, and the ball rolled back down the slope nearly to his feet. Woods got that up and down for his second bogey. Rose, plugging along, crept to within three shots.
Woods hit a sweet little draw of the tee on the par-5 18th, a hole he’d played at three under through the first two rounds, but airmailed the green with his second shot and closed with a par.
Woods has never blown a three-shot lead heading into the final round in his PGA Tour career. But a win, which would be his 80th, is hardly a given. Playing in front of Woods, Rory McIlroy shot a 66 and trails by three. Rose drove it into the trees on 18 and scrambled for a closing par and a 68. He’s also three back.
“All I can do is worry about myself,” McIlroy said of his pending Sunday showdown. “The game’s hard enough.”
And so the 2017-18 comes down to what could be a dramatic final act: Woods and McIlroy, the man who has won four majors since Woods last won one, paired together in Sunday’s final group. Rose, the new No. 1, is also right there. Next year this event will be played in an entirely new format. Say this: it’s going out in style.