Tiger Woods shot a round-of-the-day 65 on Saturday in the third round of the 2018 Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club. The 65 puts him at 12 under overall, and he will take a three-stroke lead into the final round on Sunday over the rest of the field. Saturday's front nine 30 was as thrilling a ride as Woods has taken fans on all season, and given his season, that's saying something.
It also put him in a position as the 54-hole leader by three or more strokes where he's never lost (more on that in a minute). He'll have some elite contenders behind him -- Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose are tied at 9 under -- but Woods has a head start on that pair for his first victory since August 2013.
The day began innocuously, too. Woods birdied the first hole on Saturday afternoon before making par at the second. It was a solid start for the co-leader in a bid for his first victory in over five years at an event with an absolutely loaded field. It looked as if it would be something he could build on over the course of the rest of the front nine and then possibly take to the back nine and get into contention for Sunday.
Then it got bonkers.
Woods birdied each of the next five holes (Nos. 3-7) to get to 13 under overall and build a five-stroke lead over his playing partner (and 36-hole co-leader) Rose. Woods led at that point by seven over McIlroy, who was in third place. A bogey at the ninth shrank his lead to four over Rose with a round and a half left, but Woods was clearly in control of the tournament.
The front nine was an absolute show. Woods hit approach shots of 8, 7 and 5 feet. He made all of those. He also made birdie putts of 22 and 21 feet. He grabbed the field lead in strokes gained putting and rose to No. 3 in strokes gained tee to green. He essentially lit the course on fire.
However, that bogey at the ninth hole left the door open, and Woods failed to shut the tournament down over the final nine holes of the third round. The tournament hung in the balance, it seemed, and Woods let it hang there. Tiger played those in even-par 35 and provided a little hope when he had the opportunity to snuff it out.
Maybe it won't matter. Over the course of his career, he's 42-of-44 with 54-hole leads. He's even better when that lead is three strokes or more.
Still, Woods is in a position he hasn't been familiar with of late. The numbers are startling, to be sure, but we haven't seen this version of Woods with a 54-hole lead against this caliber of player behind him. I'm fascinated to see how Woods will respond in the heat of the moment on Sunday.
His near-wins this year have all been of the come-from-behind variety. We haven't seen him lay the wood over the first three days with a 65-68-65 start like this one and try to give the rest of the field the Heisman on Sunday. That's classically how Woods has won golf tournaments, and if he wins this one, that's how it will go down.
Tiger Woods will take a 3-shot lead into the final round. He is 23-for-23 converting 54-hole leads of 3+ shots in his PGA Tour career.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) September 22, 2018
The part that should concern you if you're wearing a Tiger onesie on Sunday is that Woods has putted out of his mind over the first three days. He's first in the field and gained three of the five strokes he's up on the field average on Saturday. From a sustainability standpoint, I'm not sure that can last, but it might not matter given how he's hitting the ball right now as well. The crux of it all is that Woods is playing as well as he's played all season in every facet of the game at the very end of the year. It seems as if everything he's worked on and refined is coming to a head this weekend.
The golf has been absolutely lights out. He leads the field in putting. He leads the field in scrambling. He's third around the greens. He's even in the top five in driving accuracy! And now we're left with one final round for him to grab what has thus eluded him this season. Tiger's statistical profile says he should have already won a tournament in 2018. His resume says he hasn't.
The entire 2017-18 PGA Tour season has been phenomenal. From Tiger's comeback to start the year to a wild Masters to Brooks Koepka's two majors and an insane Open Championship, it has been an embarrassment of riches. So it feels a little unfair that the topper of it all is a Tiger Woods-Rory McIlroy final pairing on Sunday in which both will have innumerable prizes -- money, Ryder Cup momentum and a win among them -- at stake.
McIlroy (and others) chasing Woods. Just as it's always been. But this time in reality and not just in the history books.