AUGUSTA, Ga. – At the Champions Dinner two years ago, Tiger Woods told a few of his green-jacket sporting colleagues that he was done.
He told them he didn’t think golf “was in his near future, or even in my distant future.” What else was he to think, for he was bedridden for much of his time in those dark days, forced to take a nerve blocker to attend the special ceremony at Augusta National Golf Club in 2017.
But these are different times, and at 5:42 p.m. on the East coast Saturday, Woods was tied for the lead in the third round, setting up a Masters Sunday that should make Hollywood envious.
In a lavender mock turtleneck, Woods loudly moved to 11 under through 54 holes with a 5-under 67 and will play in the final group on the final day alongside Tony Finau and nemesis and 2018 British Open champion Francesco Molinari, who is two shots clear of his playing partners.
A stout collection of talent is lurking, including three-time major winner Brooks Koepka, major champions Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen and past Players champions Webb Simpson and Matt Kuchar.
But Woods, the biggest name of all, is in the mix again, and what seemed impossible two years ago is improbably possible. At 43 and in his 22nd Masters, after four surgeries to his back and four to his left knee, Woods has a bona fide chance to win a major again.
“I’m just thankful to be able to come back here and play again,” he said of the hallowed ground where he’s won four green jackets, the last in 2005.
It’s been a long road back to Magnolia Lane for Woods, who has called himself a walking miracle after spinal fusion surgery 24 months ago gave him back his way of life, and his dedication to his craft gave him back his game.
He slowly rebuilt his body and swing in a resounding return to the game in 2018, which saw him get into contention Sunday in the final two majors and a victory in the season-ending Tour Championship.
His start to 2019 has been unspectacular, but he kept moving forward with Augusta on his mind. And since he turned off Washington Road onto Magnolia Lane last Sunday, his drive for five green jackets has been a peaceful, confident ride despite the explosion of noise from Thursday on.
In many ways, the third round was a snapshot of Woods’ comeback that began two years ago. After getting off to a mundane start, Tiger slowly started to roar once again at Augusta National Golf Club as he refused to become impatient. Three consecutive birdies starting at 6, and three more in a four-hole stretch on the inward nine set off sonic booms echoing through the Georgia pines.
While all the red numbers dazzled the white scoreboards, it was a bogey at the fifth – his third this week on the par-4 – that ignited his surge. Woods said he gave himself a stern talking to from the fifth green to the sixth tee but remained calm, collected and self-assured.
“Just be patient. Very simple,” he kept telling himself. He knew time was on his side, the golf course was ripe with scoring opportunities, and his game was on the verge of clicking.
“Let the round build,” he told himself. “And I let the round build.”
Did he ever. He did everything well – drove it well, hit his irons well, putted well. He hit the ball to the correct spots, he kept the ball below the hole. It was like the British Open and PGA Championship once again, with the masses following every shot and rumbling in appreciation as Woods stalked major championship No. 15.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in contention here,” Woods said. “But then again, the last two majors count for something. I’ve been in the mix with a chance to win major championships in the last two years. So that helps.”
As will a good night’s sleep. With storms en route to the Peach State, tee times were moved up to the early morning for Sunday’s final round. Not that Woods is complaining. He remembers those painful days when he couldn’t walk, couldn’t play with his kids, couldn’t swing a club. Instead, he used golf clubs as canes to help him move around his home.
But this is a new day. Tiger is in the mix again.