- Whether he delivers his first win in five years or falls behind in a crushing loss, Sunday at the Tour Championship promises to be all about Tiger.
ATLANTA—Some five years, one month, and three weeks have passed since Tiger Woods last sat atop a 54-hole leaderboard, a span that would be unfathomable for a man of his talents and accomplishment were it not so well-documented. In the time since that 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational he has endured four surgeries on his back, weathered a two-season span where he started just one tournament, been arrested for DUI and undergone subsequent treatment, and wondered whether he would ever play golf again. He won that weekend five years ago in Akron, just as he has won all 23 times he held a lead of three-plus strokes at a tournament’s three-quarter mark, all of those wins coming in a time when the sight of Woods in his Sunday red was practically synonymous with him either closing out or chasing down a victory. And he has not won since.
Now, entering the final day of the final tournament of what is already his most successful season in a half-decade, Woods sits again in that once-familiar position while 12 under par at the Tour Championship at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Course. The world’s current No. 1 ranked player, Justin Rose, and seven-time former No. 1 Rory McIlroy nip at him from the not-insignificant distance of nine under, the former having entered Saturday tied with Woods before seeing his own 68 overshadowed and the latter having finished one stroke behind Woods’s 65 for the day’s best score.
But even with the wattage lighting the top of the leaderboard, it is not a question of who will win this tournament but rather, more simply, whether or not it will be Woods. He has flirted with victory this year, surging late to finish second at last month’s PGA Championship and posting three other top-sixes since the start of July, but never before has he been so within reach of ending his difficult, complicated drought.
“Simple math says that if I play a clean card, the guys behind me have to shoot 67 to force it into extra,” Woods said after his round, when asked about the mental advantage of this rare late lead. “That helps. I don't have to shoot 63 or 64 and hope I get help. That's a big difference. This is a spot I'd much rather be in than certainly four or five back.”
He had started this week’s tournament stronger than the others, shooting a 65 on Thursday—highlighted by an eagle on 18—and following it with Friday’s 68, a round that included a costly double-bogey on 16 and put Woods square with Rose at seven under through 36. But it was on Saturday’s front nine that Woods played with a brilliance rarely seen from him in years, birdieing six of the first seven holes to sprint to 13 under, turning his tie with Rose to a three-stroke advantage before the pair even graced the third tee box. So true were Woods’s strikes that it wasn’t until the sixth hole that he showed even a trace of frustration, staring at the fairway and swiping his club at its grass after sailing his approach into a bunker short and right of the green. But even then he chipped to within six feet of the pin and sunk his first putt for a birdie.
“I felt hot early for sure,” Woods said. “I was hitting it absolutely dead flush. The putts I was hitting were going in, and from there, I just tried to just hang in there.”
He would not stay so hot. He closed the front nine by leaving right an 11-foot putt for par and birdied just once on the back nine, a three on the par-four 12th set up by a 143-yard approach that stuck within eight feet. There were times when his back foot slipped on his shots, of which Woods said he would need to watch video to understand the cause. On that troublesome 16th he thrashed his club after both his drive and approach found the rough, settling for bogey. But like the Tiger of old he excelled enough elsewhere to provide himself room to falter and recovered well enough to only bogey twice on the day.
Also vintage was Woods’s reception, an outpouring chorus of support that greeted and trailed him on either end of every shot. He was followed during his round by not only a gaggle of media and countless fans (a handful of them in full-body tiger suits) but also Atlanta Hawks wing Vince Carter and frisbee trick-shot YouTuber Brodie Smith. So raucous were the reactions to Woods’s every move that they often left Rose addressing his ball to a decrescendo of leftover cheers that course workers worked to quell. After Woods’s approach shot on the fourth hole, a fratty cadre of young men swilling Michelob Ultras carried on particularly long, inspiring a more direct shushing so that Rose could hit. “Oh,” one of them said, quieting as the world No. 1 set up his own shot. “There’s another guy.”
Barring a Sunday bottoming-out that other guy will almost surely claim this year’s FedEx Cup, as even a Woods victory will not be enough to close the gap that currently has him 20th in the standings. (The leader entering this weekend, Bryson DeChambeau, ended Saturday on track to finish third.) Rose will slide from playing with Woods to Sunday’s penultimate pairing with Kyle Stanley, as McIlroy moves to play with Woods on Sunday for the first time ever in a PGA event. Both will be in the unenviable position of needing to gain three strokes on a Tiger that seems as dialed in as he has been in years.
“It's a little more unknown now,” Rose said, when asked if it felt different to chase Woods on Sunday these days than in years past. “Obviously his history, his statistics from this point are impeccable. They're incredible. But he's human, and there's a lot on it for him tomorrow, as well as the rest of us. It'll be a fun day for everybody to watch and to be a part of.”
And so now the tournament heads to Sunday with a familiar focus, all eyes and hopes and narratives trained tightly on Woods and his crimson shirt. No matter how it turns out, Woods will be the story—either as the semi-hobbled, once-invincible legend completes the long road to his latest comeback or, more regrettably, as he authors this year’s cruelest tease yet in an uncharacteristically sour Sunday. The day will be his to win or his to lose. The game will be his again.