Lemont, Ill. – Tiger Woods walked off the ninth tee one stroke off the lead. He walked off the 17th green seven shots ahead. In between were many highly skilled golf shots that produced six birdies and an eagle.
All were fueled by a sense of urgency.
Woods is a board watcher, and he saw the early track meet. Padraig Harrington birdied Nos. 2 through 4. Marc Leishman, a rookie, did one better, birdieing four in a row at 3-6. So Woods had a game-plan chat with himself.
“You’ve got to keep the hammer going because guys are making birdies everywhere,” he said.
Well, the hammer kept pounding and the tournament is all but over. Woods with a seven-stroke lead entering Sunday is something like a seven-touchdown advantage in the fourth quarter, especially at Cog Hill No. 4, where he has won four of his 70 PGA Tour victories.
This is the hammer: Course-record 62 at a Rees Jones-renovated course that is supposed to be more difficult. It has more length (7,616 yards), deeper bunkers and new greens that have been elevated and are more undulating.
“Probably,” Woods said when asked if this was the best round in his five-victory season.
Frank Jemsek, the affable Cog Hill owner, dearly wants a U.S. Open at his baby. That’s the main reason he had Jones upgrade one of the country’s best daily-fee layouts. But now Woods comes in and shoots 9-under-par 62, one off his PGA Tour low, on a track some players were calling a “beast” early in the week.
Jemsek should hope USGA competitions chief Mike Davis wasn’t watching. Jemsek also might be wondering if he has to get his checkbook back out to toughen up the place even more.
“Obviously we made it hard, but apparently not hard enough,” Jemsek said late Saturday afternoon as he greeted fans at the exit. “I never thought anyone would shoot that low that fast. But the good news is it’s nice to have Tiger Woods hold the course record. He hit great shots on a hard golf course.”
That he did, chewing Cog up with controlled soft draws. And he did it on an ideal day for scoring.
“The conditions were just right,” said midway co-leader Mark Wilson, paired with Woods Saturday. “There was very little wind and the course played short because of the roll. And the greens were softer on the back.”
The good news for Wilson, a nearby resident, is that he had a front-row seat to rare brilliance at a place where he has played and practiced since 2004. The bad news is he got beat by nine shots on one day.
“It’s tough when you shoot nine strokes worse than your playing partner and you’re happy about the round,” Wilson said.
Imagine how Woods felt. He set the course record by one; he and several others had shot 63 previously. But he set the record on the new facelifted course by three. The next best score this week is 65.
Asked if he envisioned a 62 when he first saw Jones’ redo this week, Woods drew laughter upon saying, “Yeah. Fifteen holes. Sixteen holes.”
The seven-stroke bulge, over ironman Brandt Snedeker and rookie Mark Leishman, is Woods’ fifth largest 54-hole lead. That doesn’t bode well for the rest. Woods has won 47 of the 51 Tour events he has led or co-led after three rounds.
But then other players are used to such feats. Not that this one didn’t surprise some.
“I just didn’t see that out there,” Snedeker, who will play with Woods for the first time Sunday, said of the 62. “Hopefully he’s wasting them all today and won’t have one tomorrow. But that’s why he’s No. 1 in the world. Paul Goydos said it best – that he’s the most underrated player in the world. We just don’t give him enough credit.”
The 62 could have been better. Woods bogeyed the first hole, then missed birdie putts of 10 feet at No. 2 and12 feet at Nos. 4 and 12. All told, he hit 10 approach shots to inside 15 feet.
His favorite shot was a 6-iron that he sliced around a tree and found the green on No. 7. Then there was the 306-yard 3-wood to 11 feet that set up the eagle at No. 9.
“The round just built upon itself,” he said. “I was able to go at flags because I had good (yardages).
Woods is winless in his last three starts. But he has shot 63-68-67-62 in his last four rounds of the FedEx Cup playoffs. He has driven the ball better during that stretch, setting up short-iron approaches from the fairway.
Some criticized Woods for playing too conservatively when losing the PGA Championship to Y.E. Yang last month. Others have said Woods hasn’t won by as large of margins and in such a powerful way as in years past. But he has won about 50 percent of his starts the last three years, compared with about 30 percent prior.
Hence, he defended his new style Saturday.
“I was playing what the (PGA) golf course gave me,” Woods said. “That’s one of the things I’ve learned and matured over the years is play with what the golf course gives you. That’s one of the reasons I’ve become much more consistent. I may not go as low, I may not win by as big of margins, but you don’t have to. The whole idea is just play for what the situation gives you.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a little more conservative and trusting your putting and getting yourself around that way.”
After a 62, he didn’t seem to have many dissenters.