It had been 2,226 days since Tiger Woods had led at the end of a round at a major, but for a short while at the British Open on Saturday it looked like he might do just that going into the final day.
The 42-year-old's much anticipated return to The Open after a two-year hiatus had been a bit of a damp squib on the first two days at Carnoustie. However, in an event he has won three times, most recently in 2006, the old fire returned on the Scottish links to reward the packed gallery of spectators following him.
The 14-time major winner — plagued in the past eight years by personal issues and back problems — fired in six birdies in a round only marred by a bogey at the 16th as he seeks a first tournament win in five years. A brilliant par on the ultra-demanding 18th — having benefited from a huge stroke of luck — briefly made him the clubhouse leader on five under par and he was smiling from ear to ear as he strode off the green.
‘It’s going to be fun’
He has not topped the leaderboard at the end of a round in a major since the second round of the US Open in 2012. Ominously for his rivals, Woods admitted afterwards he hadn’t felt as good as this at a major in a long time. “It's been a few years since I've felt like this,” he said.
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Woods, who insisted he had not realised he was in a share of the lead at one point, conceded at times in the past few years he had given up hope of being in such a position again. “It certainly is possible [to win it]. I've shown that I've been there close enough with a chance to win this year. Given what happened last few years, I didn't know if that would ever happen again, but here I am with a chance coming Sunday in a major championship. It's going to be fun.”
Luck at the last
Woods may have struggled to make par on the first but from then on some of his golf resembled that of him at his peak, back when he appeared to be on another level entirely compared to his rivals.
A monster birdie putt on the ninth had him punching the air in celebration and took him to three-under for the day and the tournament. Fired up by that, he played even better on the next hole as he turned for home. His approach shot to the 10th green landed a foot from the cup and he duly tapped in for another birdie, flashing a contented smile.
A massive drive on the following hole almost took him to the green and he duly went on to birdie that as well to pile the pressure on overnight leaders Kevin Kisner and Zach Johnson. Woods felt relaxed enough to engage in some banter with a spectator on the 12th tee after his drive had landed on the fairway, but his run of birdies came to an end there.
Another soon came at the long 14th, and he was touching the tip of his cap in appreciation of the roars of the huge crowds as he jumped into a share of the outright lead. However, two holes later he dropped a shot after three-putting at the short 16th, and a rueful shake of the head confirmed his disapproval.
Coming to the 18th he was just two off the lead and luck seemed to favour him as his drive hit the bank of the Barry Burn, but instead of dropping into the water like Frenchman Jean Van de Velde on the final day in the 1999 Open, Woods' ball somehow bounced back into the rough.
One angry swish of the club indicated his irritation but it ended in smiles by the time he sank his par putt. “That was big for me just to not finish with two bogeys on the last three holes, playing as well as I did,” said Woods.
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