Yet it can be reported with reasonable certainty that Woods indeed was the one at East Lake shooting the day’s low round of 65 on Saturday, borrowing just a bit from all those past days of competitive tyranny and grabbing this Tour Championship by the seat of its sharply pleated pants. At 12 under, he’ll report to Sunday with a three-shot lead over the European tag team of Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose.
Over the front nine Saturday, this wasn’t so much a round of golf as it was a revival. It was the launch party for the next installment of the Woods saga, the one where he rises from spinal-fusion surgery and the very real thought that he never would play again, only to make the rest of these pros at times look like they’re playing croquet.
Woods was wearing his throwback game Saturday, looking to all the world like the young, vintage Woods who used to turn tournaments into his own personal aria. The only thing that gave him away was when he lifted his cap to mop his brow and revealed the thinning lawn up top.
Woods made no secret of his intent to hijack the third round. He came off the first tee box like Usain Bolt. How about six birdies on his first seven holes? He really messed up on the par-3 second, though, two putting for par from 45 feet.
“Yeah, I got off to a nice start there,” he deadpanned.
He birdied employing the longish putt, finishing off No. 1 with a 23-footer and No. 3 with a 21-footer. Woods finished the day best in the field in strokes gained putting.
“I’ve been hitting the ball pretty well, and I’ve been streaky with my putter,” he said in a synopsis of his year. “I’ve had hot stretches, but I haven’t been consistent day in and day out. This week I have been consistent.”
He birdied by turning iron into gold, firing at the pin on No. 7 out of a fairway bunker 172 yards downrange, and sticking it to five feet.
He birdied by displaying the kind of control off the tee that has often abandoned him in this comeback (10 of 14 fairways hit, third in the field in strokes gained off the tee).
And then he bogeyed the par-3 ninth, unable to get up and down from well off the green, if only to give what was happening a hint of humanity.
After a front-nine 30, he retreated a bit. In fact, following the six-birdie light show, Woods was over par his last 11 holes.
But before he retired, he did want to hit one last drive 349 yards – on the downhill 18th – just to show that the old back still had some pop to it. The hole that had treated him so well the first two days let him down, though, when he dumped his second shot into a greenside bunker and could not get up and down for a closing birdie.
The overall affect was to put Woods in a position he hasn’t been in since his last PGA Tour victory in 2013 – holding a 54-hole lead. Unlike other flashes this year that put him momentarily in contention, he now is the clear front-runner late in the going. He has a lifetime record of 53-4 when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead.
“Simple math says that if I play a clean card, the guys behind me have to shoot 67 to force it into extra (holes),” Woods said. “That helps. I don’t have to shoot 63 or 64 and hope I get help. That’s a big difference.”
There are a couple of very notable players who will try to muddy the picture Sunday. His Saturday playing partner, Rose, remains in the best position to win the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus, even if he doesn’t overtake Woods to win the tournament. Not that he is willing to just let the best story play through him.
“I’ve been saying for a while now, he’s playing easily well enough to win, and it’s just a matter of time,” said Rose, who got off to a bogey-bogey start Saturday, but fought back to a 68. “You just don’t want it to be on your watch, you know.”
Woods and Rose had been paired up three previous times this season, with the Englishman winning the head-to-head each time. The script was well and truly flipped Saturday.
It will be McIlroy’s turn to pair with Woods on the final round, after he turned in a 66 on Saturday. This will be the first time they have been paired in the final round of a PGA Tour event.
“It’s going to be fun,” Woods said. “We haven’t done that much of late because I’ve not been there.”
It goes without saying, but Woods went on to say it anyway: “I would love to be able to win this event.”