DUBLIN, Ohio — Just after high noon on Saturday, Tiger Woods strode from the 5th green to the 6th tee at Muirfield Village Country Club, wielding driver, face inscrutable.
One fan had been posted up at the tee box for a while. "Hey Tiger!" he called out. "We're all curious — did you make that eagle putt?"
Woods turned his head ever so slightly, glancing at the man out of the corner of his eyes. He cracked a mischievous grin. "Maybe," he said.
He had made it, of course. And he made a series more birdie putts not long after. But two late three-putts soured another brilliant ballstriking round from Woods, who couldn't help but be disappointed afterwards.
"I know I shot 68 today but, again, that's probably the highest score I could have possibly shot," he said. "I played really, really well. I played beautifully, actually. Had total control of what I was doing out there and just didn't finish it off."
After missing a series of short putts late in Friday's round of 67, Woods's flatstick was cold to begin Saturday, too. Short birdie looks at holes 2 and 3 lacked the pace to get to the hole, and a misread at 4 let another look slide by. But then came a tight 3-wood off the 5th tee, and a towering long iron, and a downhill putt that Woods gave plenty of pace that found the bottom of the cup for an eagle 3 that ushered in a Moving Day charge from the five-time Memorial champion.
Woods followed the eagle at 5 with birdies at 6 and 7, adding another at 9 that yielded a roar from a swelling crowd. The hot stretch added up to a first-nine 31 that featured no missed fairways and just a single missed green. It was also six shots better than playing partner Patrick Reed, the other half of a much-hyped pairing.
Playing with Woods presents challenges, particularly with crowds constantly on the move, jockeying for best viewing position and ignoring the pleas of marshals and even Reed's caddie that they hold still. "I feel bad for that other guy, that's with Tiger," one spectator said as he hustled to chase down a next viewing spot. The Tiger Train was full steam ahead.
But as Woods made the turn, his momentum seemed to slow. His ballstriking, impossibly good on the front, began to show some cracks. He barely missed the fairway at 10, then barely missed the green, but scrambled for a par. He seemed perplexed by the wind at No. 12, the par 3, finding the front bunker before another scrambling par. A middling wedge shot at 13 left him distant and displeased, and a better wedge shot at the next hole, to inside four feet, went unrewarded when Woods blew the putt past the right edge.
Woods squeezed one more moment of magic out of his round at the short par-5 15th. After blowing his tee shot O.B. right on Thursday and trees right on Friday, Woods hit a snap-hook that tumbled out of the air and barely stayed in play in the left rough. But he punched up the fairway and hit his approach left of the hole, leaving a slippery, curling 14-footer that fell in with an emphatic fist pump, and with good reason: Tiger Woods was tied for the lead.
A three-putt at 16 sent Woods back to 10-under, and after a two-putt par at 17 and an iron to the middle of the 18th green, it appeared certain that for the second consecutive day, Woods would be posting a round of five under that was both exhilarating and disappointing. But then Woods jammed his three-footer for par through any break, catching the edge of the hole and spinning out for a closing bogey that left him at nine under.
Woods had a technical explanation for the short misses. "I was releasing the putter beautifully early. Just getting the putts to turn over. My toe was moving nicely, and just didn't do that at the end."
The back-nine stallout called to mind Friday's round at the Memorial as well as Woods's weekend performance in his previous start at the Players, where he was eight-under through 12 on Saturday and six-under through 12 on Sunday before playing the final six holes a combined four-over.
He finished the day hitting 12 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens, but required 31 putts to get around. With the leaders just making the turn, it's likely that Woods will be at the edge of contention going to the Memorial's final round. He predicted the leader he'll have to chase down will settled at 14- or 15- under. "The weather's supposed to come in tomorrow and it's supposed to be iffy, and if there's wind associated with it, then I don't think the guys will shoot as low," Woods said. "They gave us some new pins on Sunday, which are a little bit surprising, so we'll see what happens."