When the birdie putt dropped at the par-3 15th on Friday at the Tour Championship, Tiger Woods gave a fist pump to match the three-story celebration from the corporate hospitality behind the green.
It was at that point the 79-time PGA Tour winner took a two-shot lead at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, inspiring visions of a comeback-culminating win that seemed unthinkable this time a year ago.
However, Woods made an infuriating double-bogey 6 on the next hole, surrendering his solo lead to a share of it with Justin Rose. When both players made birdie 4 on the par-5 finisher in consecutive pairings, their Saturday third-round tee time was set, with Woods and Rose set to go off in a Ryder Cup precursor at 2:30 p.m. Eastern.
Following up a Thursday 65 to take a share of the lead with Rickie Fowler with a 2-under 68 on Friday, Woods sounded like the former world No. 1 who could turn 75s into 72s and 70s into 68s.
“The best way to describe it is I grounded out a round today,” Woods said. “I wasn’t quite as sharp as I was yesterday, but hung in there and tried to miss the ball on the correct sides so I had angles. For the most part of the day, I did that.”
Woods has taken a conservative tack this week, akin to how he’s long approached the majors. Pars are his friend, but he won’t turn down a birdie.
“This is a tough golf course,” Woods said. “A lot of pars are going to be made out here. That’s basically what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to make a bunch of pars and sprinkle in a few birdies here and there.”
Woods will need to continue his efficient play if he wants to finish off his first PGA Tour win since August 2013. Not only is the new world No. 1 Rose tied with him, but Rory McIlroy trails by only two. For Rose, a win this week means a $10 million bonus along with the FedEx Cup. Being at the head of the 30-man field narrows the focus on finishing off what’s in front of him instead of running a mental spreadsheet.
“I’m in a position where I want to win this golf tournament and I can keep it as simple as that. I know that if I do that, it’s gravy all the way,” Rose said.
Woods and Rose have played together already this season, pegging it in the third round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Both players made a move that Saturday, but it was McIlroy who wound up the ultimate victor. However, September isn’t March. Asked about the evolution of his game since March, Woods was quick to point out the man playing in Atlanta bears no resemblance to the man who couldn’t close the deal at Bay Hill.
“My body is different, my game is different,” he said. “I have all new equipment since then. Everything has been evolving and moving and changing since I first started coming back at Torrey.”
Now this trio will try to chase down the final title of the season — and, if they play their cards right, the season-long points race, too.