CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – There’s a large mound that splits the 12th and 13th greens at Carnoustie and it’s where media members sit or kneel or stand to watch the action.
The mound was nearly full of bodies when Tiger Woods walked off the tee at the par-3 13th. There are relatively few fans in this area compared to tournaments in the U.S. so voices carry a little more, and on that mound a radio broadcaster with a British accent said something that would have been impossible to believe not long ago.
“Tiger Woods will have a very makeable birdie putt to tie for the lead in a major.”
And sure enough on the next hole, the par-5 14th, with Matt Kuchar, Erik van Rooyen and both caddies watching closely from the shared fourth green, Woods tapped in for birdie to claim a share of the lead at the 147th British Open.
“Given what happened the last few years, I didn’t know if that would ever happen again, but here I am with a chance coming up Sunday in a major championship,” Woods said. “It’s going to be fun.”
Saturday was a hell of a lot of fun too. Woods shot 5-under 66 to get to T-6 and if you saw it, you definitely felt something.
For the first time all week the Scottish crowd gave in and began chanting his name as he walked up the 10th fairway, toward a Bridgestone golf ball that nearly dropped for a hole-out eagle and would soon find its home in the bottom of the cup for the second of three consecutive birdies.
Carnoustie isn’t like most stateside courses that loop back toward the clubhouse on nine. If you want beers at the turn you better pack your own. The No. 9 green and No. 10 tee are as far away from the clubhouse as one can get on property and it’s where Woods got super aggressive and started this thing without warning.
He pulled driver at No. 9 for the first time this week and missed a tad left, but it was close enough to the green that he got out of the knee-high grass and onto the green to give himself a long look.
He pulled driver at No. 10 for the second time this week and crushed it down the middle of the fairway, sticking his approach to tap-in range which led to the aforementioned “Ti-Ger, Ti-Ger, Ti-Ger” chant.
He pulled driver at No. 11 for the first time this week and nearly drove the green, his ball just short and left and leaving an easy two putt.
That got Woods to 5 under, just one off the lead, and the subplot of sudden aggressive club selection coupled with his rapid leaderboard movement in context with the bigger 10-year major drought picture was as captivating a scene as one will find in all of sports.
Woods hit driver just three times combined in Rounds 1 and 2, but he pulled big stick six times Saturday – at holes No. 2, 6, 9, 10, 11 and 14 – and made five birdies and one par. Woods paid close attention to the morning action and saw a lot of birdies out of there, and he decided it was time to step on the gas.
“Just thought that with some of the pin locations that if we missed on the correct side, we could still have easy shots into the green today,” Woods said.
He definitely made it look easy for 15 holes, a lone bogey coming at the par-3 16th after an approach shot that was nearly perfect but ultimately drifted off the green.
The only bad tee shot was at 18, where he nearly pulled the new TaylorMade driving iron out of bounds left. He had a bit of room, laid up well short of the burn and threw a wedge into the green for a gutsy closing par.
He’s four shots behind co-leaders Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner entering the final round, the first time he’s seriously contended in one since the 2013 Masters. After the round he was asked where a win Sunday would rank against the rest of his 14 career majors.
“We’re not there yet,” Woods said, flashing a huge smile. “I know what you’re trying to say and asking, but let me try and get there first. … Then ask me again.”
These are the bonus years of Woods’ career, one which looked like it was over countless times before his 42nd birthday last December. It’s hard to be overly critical when he stumbles, like the missed cut at the U.S. Open, because we know what he endured just to get to Shinnecock in the first place. And the critics have still found every opportunity to inject a “Yeah, but …” when he surprises us like he first did with 330-plus yard drives and a T-9 finish in his initial return at the Hero World Challenge last December.
“Yeah, but he won’t do this in a Tour event.”
He stunned everyone with a T-2 finish at the Valspar Championship, where he contended from start to finish and came within one shot of a playoff.
“Yeah, but the field was weak and he hit iron off 18 when he needed to make a birdie.”
He followed that up with a T-5 against a loaded field at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“Yeah, but he can’t contend in a major.”
So much for that.
Woods has gone from an afterthought to the center of the golfing world in just seven short months, and he’s on the verge of the unthinkable after 18 brilliant holes Saturday at Carnoustie.
“It’s been a few years since I’ve felt like this,” Woods said.
He’s not the only one.