- As Tiger heads into the final round in contention, the show and the show within a show will finally collide at the PGA Championship.
ST. LOUIS — They streamed from the grandstands on Bellerive’s 18th hole, filing out before Stewart Cink could hole his putt for par. Tiger Woods was finished, and so were hundreds of the sunbaked fans who’d camped there all day, waiting as Woods marched around the course and up the leaderboard. The day was over—except no, not quite.
Brooks Koepka, leading the field, was still to come up the fairway, as was Adam Scott, and Rickie Fowler, and Dustin Johnson. The tournament was still going, except by then, two events were coexisting on the same course: the PGA Championship and whatever Woods was doing, the show within a show.
On Sunday, finally, they’ll collide.
After playing 29 holes Saturday—11 left over from Friday’s suspended play—Woods pulled himself to eight under par by the end of the tournament’s third round. On the day, he was five under par, on his final 18 holes, four under, and by the time the day was done, Woods’s score tied him with six other golfers for sixth place.
For any other golfer, it would have been respectable, impressive, good for an aside. You know what, watch out for that guy; he’s hanging around! But when it comes to Woods in 2018, it’s the show. Big Koepka fan? Huge Justin Thomas enthusiast? Be Bellerive’s guest, walk unimpeded beside them, serve your cheer up to willing ears. For most of Saturday’s 18 holes, Woods drove traffic. Cink, who along with Webb Simpson rounded out the 12:21 tee time, has played with Woods intermittently for decades, and he said the experience Saturday took him back. “It was like turning back the hands of the clock,” said Cink, who’s also at eight under for the tournament. “I didn't really feel like there was a difference at all. It just felt like all that I remembered playing with Tiger all those years, you know, when he was winning tournaments.”
The crowd, bottlenecked and sandwiched into every crevice Bellerive had to offer, belonged to one man. Hats from Nike’s Tiger Woods collection sold out from the merchandise tent early in the week, and on Saturday, they abounded—although they were by no means the most creative piece of Woods apparel on the links. As the 42-year-old walked up the 17th fairway, eyeing an eagle putt, a fan scrambled up the cart path in a T-shirt screen-printed with dozens of images of Woods’s head: looking every which direction, in the various phases of a smile, always affixed to shoulders clothed in red. Closer to the green, along the fencing that separates the course from a surrounding neighborhood, heads peeked over, grown men on tippy-toes angling for a glimpse. A little boy in a neon shirt perched on a tree branch above them.
What they watched was the hole Woods regretted, where he was a 19-foot putt away from eagle. After netting five birdies on the front nine, he’d shot even par since, and to knock his score down to 10 under for the tournament would have done wonders. Instead, he may have overcorrected. “I left pretty much every single putt short on the back nine,” Woods explained. “The greens were getting fuzzy, they're getting slow, and I didn't hit the putts quite hard enough. And I made sure on 17 I did. And I blew it by about four feet.” He went on to pull his birdie putt, settling with par; he’d go on to par the 18th hole as well, capping off a back nine where he left several strokes on the greens—which Woods was mildly critical of after his round.
“[The wet conditions take] the creativity of the greens away, for sure,” he said. “The putts are very straightforward, they don't break very much, and just go ahead and take a rap at them. So there's no feeding putts. There aren't putts that you're afraid that they're going to get away from you. We don't have any, the greens are too slow and too soft for that.”
Woods will go into Sunday in the same spot he was at the British Open in July, at four strokes off the lead. It’ll mark the first time he’s been in contention at a major tournament on U.S. soil since the 2015 Masters—and he’s in better position at Bellerive than he was then at Augusta. On Saturday, Woods said the only other course where he’s played a major with greens so soft was Southern Hills, in Tulsa—the site of his most recent PGA Championship victory, in 2007. And so he might, he could, it’s so easy to imagine, because of that experience, because of how he’s driving the ball, hitting greens, staying steady. Because it’s fun to imagine, really, this what if becoming WHAT IF becoming what will it take?
And the answer to that question is getting clearer. It will take a close-to-perfect round. Woods, who said Saturday’s round-and-a-half of golf left him mentally tired, will have to make every birdie he missed thus far. He’ll have to hope for Koepka to stumble, which he doesn’t often do, not once he’s wrangled the leaderboard as well as he has at Bellerive. As Woods ground out the back nine on Saturday, tens of thousands of fans walked and whispered and roared as if he was marching toward a win, as if he had this thing in hand. Without much cell service, with big, wooden leaderboards updated by hand and at a delay, it was easy to talk oneself into this alternate universe, these alternate standings. The only person on the course who wasn’t convinced, it seems, was Woods himself. Asked after the round how he’d feel to win his 15th major, he was clipped: “A long way to go before that happens.”
Woods is by no means the favorite. Sunday should be more of the same—gettable birdies, soft greens, straightforward shots—and 14 golfers, including six of the top 10 in the world, sit within five strokes of Koepka’s lead. And with just 18 holes of golf remaining, Woods can’t stay in a bubble any longer. Paired with big-hitting Gary Woodland, he’ll be in the thick of the leaders: the superhero-esque Koepka, the defending champion Thomas, the adored Fowler, among others—and the 42-year-old with a four-times-repaired back, coming off 29 holes and multiple shirts so drenched with sweat, he had to change mid-round.
And so what? Tomorrow’s shirts will be red, and tomorrow’s tournament could still be Tiger’s.