PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — For once, expectations felt appropriately low for Tiger Woods as he entered his third round at the Players Championship. His game had smelled of meh as he tallied middling finishes at the Masters and Wells Fargo Championship, and he seemed destined for another unremarkable made cut. Most of the Florida faithful seemed just happy he was still there for the weekend: he'd made the cut directly on the number and sat a non-threatening 14 golf shots behind leader Webb Simpson.
He grabbed the crowd's attention when he birdied the first two holes, rewarding those who had turned out early with some red figures to match their Bloody Marys. But then came another birdie at 4, and one at 5, and another at 7. He was flagging his irons and putts that had slipped past the edge were finding their mark. For the first time in recent memory, the logo on the front of his hat was the Nike Swoosh rather than his personal TW insignia, but there was no denying it — this was Tiger in Full.
It would be wrong to say that the swarms are back; they never left. It was the electricity that felt different. Crowds by the clubhouse were abuzz, and fans stormed through the gates with a sense of urgency, aware that something special was happening. Did you see what Tiger is doing?! It was a new old feeling. The mob assembled near the 9th green, where Woods lofted a long iron from 256 yards onto the back fringe, sending them into full froth.
A two-putt birdie finished off a front-nine six-under 30, taking Woods from a share of 68th all the way to the edge of the top ten. He was walking the way he walks when he’s locked in; head high, face blank, vision tunneled.
There were other low scores early on Saturday; the greens were soft, the air was still, and the sun was hot. But Woods was doing something special — not like, special for Tiger, but special, period, which is an important distinction. He wasn’t done as he headed to the back nine.
Woods split the fairway at the par-5 eleventh, leaving himself 229 yards to the hole. He lofted his three-iron ("a high, towering bomb," he said) just over the flag, setting up another eagle putt. The crowd was in full game mode now, standing dead still and collectively silent as Woods addressed the ball. He raced the eagle try six feet past, but no matter: he cleaned that up. They roared.
Perhaps the best shot of Woods’s entire day came at twelve, the drivable par 4. After flaring a "not very good" two-iron out to the right, he faced a delicate 40-yard short-sided pitch shot to a front pin, with both grain and slope running away from the hole. It was undeniably hot now; the crowds served as a wind guard, blocking what little breeze there was. The smell of sweat and Michelob Ultra carried through the air. Woods reached for his towel.
After long inspection, he took the low road, skipping one along the fairway before it trickled onto the green and just past the pin. The way he’d been putting, eight feet coming back felt like a guarantee. Eight under through 12? The course record, matched by Simpson just 18 hours before, was suddenly under siege.
Woods thought so, too. "I mean to be 8-under there through 12, realistically I probably could have got a couple more out of it and got to 10 for the day," he said.
Instead, the third act of Woods’s round took on a different tone. After a near-miss for birdie at 13, he pushed his tee shot at 14, finding a snarly lie on a downslope and leading to bogey. His best chance to get that shot back came at the par-5 16th, where a deft bunker shot left him just seven feet. It was the only putt he missed inside 13 feet all day.
Two closing pars meant a seven-under 65 and a share of eighth place. The numbers told the story: it was Woods’s lowest round relative to par since 2013 and his lowest ever score at the Players. He gained nearly three strokes on the field through putting alone. The only round that rivaled his came from four groups ahead: Jordan Spieth birdied his last three holes to post a matching 65.
Spieth and Woods may be paired together, although they’re unlikely to be too close to the top. Woods was quick to downplay his advance up the leaderboard. "These guys are going to tear this place apart," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if somebody went lower than what I did today."
The leaders still hadn’t teed off as Woods wrapped up his post-round interviews. The crowd dispersed across the course, long on lemonade and short on sunscreen, ready to watch the contenders and to share stories of what they’d just seen. Tiger Woods is making it known: he’s here for the weekend.