PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Pandemonium broke out on Saturday at the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort. Lusty, uproarious cheers reverberated around the course, some coming from fans at far-away holes watching TVs in chalets. It reached a fever pitch when Tiger Woods chipped in for birdie at the 9th hole, and a chant of "Let's-Go-Tiger" broke out among the crowd.
"I can confirm he's back," said his playing partner, Brandt Snedeker. "The roars are back."
The atmosphere was electric, especially when Woods managed to slip the leading edge of his sand wedge underneath the ball from a dicey lie a mere 30 feet from the hole and lofted it barely onto the putting surface. Once the ball landed it picked up speed and, as if drawn by a magnet, obediently curved toward the hole. Woods pumped his fist in celebration. Snedeker, who played alongside Woods for the fourth time this season, simply smiled and laughed.
"It's just him to a T," said Snedeker of Woods's wondrous birdie. "Just kind of vintage Tiger."
It was Woods's highlight-reel moment in his four-under, third-round 67, his lowest score during his comeback, and has lifted Woods into a tie for second with Snedeker and Justin Rose, trailing only Canadian Corey Conners by one stroke.
Three weeks ago, after a dispiriting missed cut at the Genesis Open, Woods was talking about needing "reps." Now, he is in contention to win for the first time since 2013 and just 11 months after undergoing surgery to fuse his back. Speaking of the surgery, Woods called his decision to go under the knife uncharted territory. Bad backs had ended numerous careers. Fusing the lower lumbar had saved none. And yet Woods elected to undergo surgery for one simple reason.
"That was last-case resort and ended up being the only option I had left," he said.
At times, it's been hard to fully trust Woods when he claims he's healthy after so many setbacks, but there is no denying that he is swinging with renewed ferocity. He used his driver sparingly on Saturday, but belted blasts of 327 yards at the 5th and 321 yards at the 14th to reach both par 5s in two shots. (The 129-mph swing at 14 was the fastest recorded swing on the PGA Tour this season.) To do so, he had to modify his technique slightly.
"It's like riding a bike but just a new bike," Woods said. "I don't have the same rotation I used to. I will never have that again. And so I have to rely on different feels and different shots now and I'm still learning but I'm getting better at learning how to do it."
Woods got into red figures on the day early with a 21-foot birdie putt at the 3rd. Aided by a sense of the moment that always seemed to allow him to will the ball into the hole, Woods struck his putt and it died just at the right moment and dropped in.
"I gave a little premature step," said Woods, who gave it a fist pump and sent fans into delirium.
Woods blasted a fairway wood just over the green at the 611-yard par-5 5th and nearly chipped in for eagle. He saved the heroics for the chip-in at the 9th.
"We were semi-joking today back at the house that I hit so many good chips that haven't gone in yet," Woods said. "I'm due to hole one and I finally holed one. That was nice."
One hole later, Woods had a 22-foot birdie putt and gave it a rap and watched as the ball chased toward the hole as if it had no place else to go. The crowd roared. He was tied for the lead. Woods made his lone blemish at 13, overcooking a 7-iron at the par 3 and had to scramble for bogey. But Woods bounced back with a birdie at 14 and closed with four pars. Snedeker has had a front row seat for much of Woods's 2018 comeback and came away impressed with his latest effort.
"At Honda that was his new baseline and it's better since Honda," Snedeker said. "Today, he putted a little bit off compared to what I saw at Honda but he drove it way better and I don't see it going backwards from here, only going to get better."
But what about Sunday? How will Woods respond to the pressure of trying to return to the winner's circle after such a long layoff? Forget about just getting ready for the Masters in April. Tomorrow could be epic. Count three-time major winner Padraig Harrington among those who expect Woods actually will be sharper when it's crunch time.
"With nine holes to go, everything goes out the door and you forget about everything and you just think about how do I get this job done?" Harrington said. "Every one reverts to type under pressure and we like Tiger's type."
Check out Woods's highlights, including his chip-in birdie at the 9th, below.
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Woods birdied the third hole, sinking a putt from 20 feet, causing massive cheers to erupt from the gallery.
Tiger's second birdie, on No. 5, was set up by this 320-yard drive.
Tiger chips in for birdie on the ninth to move to 7-under and to grab a share of the lead.
Tiger follows up his birdie at No. 9 with...another birdie.
Woods slipped slightly on No. 13, carding his first bogey of the day.
But on 14, he tapped in for birdie. And his clubhead speed on the drive at 14 was measured at more than 129 mph, the fastest speed recorded on the PGA Tour this season.
Woods finished with three pars for a four-under 67.