ATLANTA — There was a different feeling in the air at East Lake Golf Club early Saturday afternoon. In the sun-soaked crowds and around the practice area, and as Tiger Woods and Justin Rose waited to start of their third round, you could feel it on the first tee. Part eagerness, part nervousness.
Thursday, Tiger looked fantastic shooting 65. Friday he figured out a way to shoot 68 even though his driver was giving him trouble and his iron game was erratic. Paired with Rose, an Englishman who is as reliable as a Swiss watch, no one knew precisely which Woods would show up for the third round of the 2018 Tour Championship.
But from the moment his first putt of the day dropped from 22 feet for a birdie, and Rose made bogey after flubbing a chip, any anxiety the fans or Woods felt disappeared. The party was on.
A shower of cheers fell on Woods as he made the short walk to the second tee. “C’mon Tiger” could be heard everywhere, and after a par on the 171-yard par 3, Tiger birdied the next five in a row to take over the tournament at 13 under.
A bogey at the ninth put an end to the giddiness and reminded everyone that while Woods had just shot a front-nine 30, there were still 27 holes to play against top-flight competition.
In the end, Woods shot a 65 that matched his opening-round score. He now has a three-shot lead over Rory McIlroy (66) and Rose (68). Kyle Stanley shot 67 and Jon Rahm carded a 68 to tie for fourth, six shots behind Woods.
The 14-time major champion has never lost a PGA Tour tournament when he entered the final round with a lead of three strokes or better.
” I got off to a nice start there,” Woods said, unable to contain a smile. “I made some nice putts. Good Lord. I left myself in good spots, too, so I was able to take a run at some of the putts. Other than on three, every putt was uphill, so it was nice. I felt like I could free-wheel it, and they went in.”
When athletes are in the zone, just thinking about their situation or realizing what they are doing can snap them out of it. With the crowds going bananas as Woods made one birdie after another, maintaining focus was the challenge.
“I was trying to make sure that I stayed committed to what I was doing, trying to make sure that if I missed it, I missed on the correct spots,” he said, echoing the plan he has maintained throughout this event.
On the front nine, Woods said the only shot that he played poorly was his tee shot on the seventh hole, a 3-wood that went into a fairway bunker on the left. But Woods even made something out of that.
“I had an absolute perfect lie; it was sitting up on a tee,” he said. ” So yeah (I said to myself), ‘I’ll try and hit a straight ball to maybe a little cut over to the right and short. If I happen to hit it dead straight, it could be good, because the lie is sitting so well,’ and it came out just dead flat straight and ended up nice and tight there for birdie.”
Motivation comes from a lot of places. For Woods, the prospect of winning for the first time in five year and after four back surgeries provides plenty.
There may have been a little extra motivation pushing Woods on Saturday. His world ranking is currently No. 21, but he was ranked No. 1 for 683 weeks. Rose has now been No. 1 for 13 days. The Brit played three rounds with Woods earlier this season and shot a lower score each time, Woods’ game has been rounding into form since they last played at the Memorial in May.
Heading into the Ryder Cup, Woods’ round sent a clear message to Rose and the entire European team: That’s my chair, don’t get too comfy in it.
Woods has led tournaments before this season. But every time he has been in contention down the stretch, he has been trying to track down the leaders. This time, with a three-shot lead, it will be different. He’s expected to win. If he doesn’t and McIlroy or Rose come from behind to beat him, it will be a letdown.
“It’s 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. This is a spot I’d much rather be in than certainly four or five back.”
With Rose lurking near the top of the leaderboard, Woods likely won’t win the FedEx Cup. But the math going into Sunday is undoubtedly in his favor when it comes to winning a third Tour Championship. He’s waited five years to win a tournament. He may need to wait less than 24 hours more.