CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Tiger Woods was on the 17th green, in contention at the British Open, and he read his putt and camera shutters clicked and birds chirped, and the only reason this didn’t feel like a dream was that the birds did not wait for him to putt before they chirped. Alas, that putt didn’t go in. But so many of them did today.
Tiger Woods is in contention. No five words in golf can match those.
Woods isn’t back to his old place in the game—he has a lot of work to do to win here Sunday—but he looked like his old self in so many ways Saturday. You can start with his iron play, which was extremely precise, and move along to his putting, which was excellent, and find the ultimate confirmation from his on-course demeanor: unimpressed.
When he hit his approach on 15 to within 20 feet, he did not seem particularly pleased. When the crowd chanted his name constantly, he barely noticed. Even when he moved into a tie for the lead at six under after a birdie on 14, he was not really aware of it.
Hey, if you want somebody to wave to you, go follow Phil Mickelson. If you want to see smiles, find Matt Kuchar. The allure of Tiger Woods is in his all-consuming pursuit of perfection in a sport where he knows perfection is impossible.
After shooting even par the first two days, he shot five-under 66 to vault himself up the leaderboard. He hit two lousy putts—both on the par-3 16th hole, which he bogeyed—and one bad tee shot (on 18, which nearly found Barry Burn).
“I really didn’t feel like I made a bad swing until 18,” he said afterward. “I felt like I had control of the golf ball today.”
If Woods wins the British Open, it would be one of the great sports stories in years. And one reason to think it is possible is that he isn’t thinking about what a great story it would be. He was asked about the electric atmosphere when he was tied for the lead—with Jordan Spieth, nonetheless—and his answer was both unhelpful and telling: “Uhhh … I didn’t know I was tied for the lead. I knew I was within one. But I was right there. I still had 15, had some work to do, had four more holes to go. I was concentrating.”
He isn’t here to create an electric atmosphere. Maybe that was nice in February. Woods is past that now. He watched the Open telecast Saturday morning and saw that the course was “gettable,” decided to hit driver more than he had in the first two rounds and spent his last minutes before teeing off on the practice green, hitting long putts. His head is completely inside his golf game. He missed that feeling.
Maybe his most important shot of the day came on 18, after that one lousy tee shot. There was a Woods-induced media traffic jam on a bridge going over the burn on the 18th hole. Woods laid up from the rough to 83 yards, the wise play, then stuck his third shot close to the pin.
“Like I practice in the backyard,” he said with a smile. “And I hit my number.”
Nobody has ever played the game better than this man did in his prime. Few are playing it better this weekend. Spieth is one of the few, which adds to the fun. The defending champion bettered Woods by one, shooting 65 to post nine under for the tournament. Tiger, Spieth and Rory McIlroy fighting for the Claret Jug … if that doesn’t excite you, sell your clubs.
I know that many of you got sick of people wondering if Woods would ever win again. So did Woods. But here he is.
“It would be better on Sunday,” he said. “But I’m right there. I’ve got a chance at this, which is great. It certainly is possible. I have been there close enough with a chance to win this year. Given what happened the last few years, I didn’t know if that would ever happen again.”
Earlier this year, Woods said one of his goals was to qualify for the World Golf Championships event at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, where he has won eight times. He needs to get into the top 50 of the world ranking to do it, and he needs to finish somewhere in the top 10 (perhaps top six or seven) here to do that. And now that he is on the verge of doing just that, the goal has shifted.
Woods has kept moving the goalposts back for himself during this comeback. He has gone from wondering if he could play well again to thinking he could win again to wanting to win a major this weekend. That is how well he has played this year.
As Woods spoke to the media, he was one stroke behind Spieth and three off the lead. He'll enter Sunday four back of Spieth's, Kevin Kisner's and Xander Schauffele's nine-under total. But he knew when he wakes Sunday morning, he will have the only thing he really wanted the last few years: a chance on Sunday at a major.
“They won’t be too far out of reach,” Woods said. “If they happen to get to double digits, I’m still only five back.”
And where would a win here rank? Woods laughed and scratched his right leg. Ten years ago, his other leg was broken and he won at Torrey Pines. That is probably No. 1 in his mind. But if he wins this …
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “I know. I understand, I know what you’re trying to say. Let me try and get there first, and ask me again.”