PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — As Peter Malnati and Tiger Woods walked off the 12th tee at Riviera Country Club, Malnati asked the 14-time major winner if he was nervous about playing alongside him and informed Woods he wore a bucket cap to make him look less intimidating.
Woods chuckled. “Yeah, I’m terrified, but I’m handling it all right.”
Did he ever.
Woods played his first four holes in Saturday’s third round in 5-under for just the second time since 2003, but still has a lot of work ahead of him if he’s going to catch Justin Thomas when play resumes Sunday at the Genesis Open.
Thomas eagled the first hole to take a one-stroke lead at 13 under through 38 holes over Australian Adam Scott when play was suspended due to darkness.
It was a day that began bright and early for Malnati, who plugged his phone into an outlet that didn’t charge and left him lucky to wake up without aid of an alarm. But the rest of his day turned out to be unforgettable. Malnati, a 31-year-old journeyman with one PGA Tour victory to his credit, wrapped up a second-round 69 to finish at 1-under 141 and make the 36-hole cut and tracked the scores on his own phone with a hint of anticipation that he might be paired with Woods, his childhood hero, for the first time in his career.
Woods had to complete his second round early in the morning, when it was so cold that Thomas complained he couldn’t feel his toes and fingers for a bit. Woods made birdie at the final hole to shoot even-par 71. With two groups left on the course in the second round, Malnati checked the scores again and said that he and Woods were T-52. Next thing he knew, he got the tee time assignment for his threesome off No. 10 at 3:40 p.m. (Cody Gribble, who was 5 over for seven holes, dropping to last place among the 76 players to make the cut, rounded out the threesome.)
“Teenage me dreamed about that,” Malnati said.
But when Malnati arrived at the 315-yard 10th hole, the best short par 4 on Tour, the nerves set in.
“All things considered, the 10th tee shouldn’t be terrifying. You’re not going to hit in a pond or out of bounds, but I was shaking,” he said. “It was the most awesome energy. It was so cool.”
Malnati described what happened over the next several holes as “surreal, awesome and nuts the way he played,” referring to Woods’s red-hot start of birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie, his best start since the second round of the 2009 Buick Open. Of the 5-wood Woods launched from 253 yards to inside 10 feet en route to eagle at the 11th hole, Malanti said, “That shot was super-easy for him.”
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More impressive to Malnati was the way Woods controlled his irons and flighted draws into the wind on 13 and 14.
“I could see that’s why the guy was so great,” Malnati said. “It looks like he’s never going to hit a bad iron shot.”
When Woods canned a 14-foot birdie putt at No. 13 to climb to 6 under for the tournament, the crowd erupted with glee. The group pressed on against the darkness, Woods, Malnati and Gribble playing like a group of golfers on a muny twilight rate, trying to complete as many holes as possible before they ran out of light. When asked if he wished he could keep going if not for darkness, Woods said, “Without a doubt. The way I was feeling, the way I was playing, I wanted to play as many holes as possible. Peter was great, he went over to 17 tee and teed off so we can get 17 in, so that was awfully nice of him to do something like that.”
Woods eventually elected to wait until the morning before playing his fourth shot on the par-5 17th from just short of the green.
His torrid start lifted him to T-14, but still seven strokes off the pace set by Thomas.
Play is expected to resume on Sunday at 6:45 am local time with hopes of declaring a winner by the end of day and avoiding a second straight Monday finish.
“That just sounds cold and dark,” Malnati said of Sunday’s sunrise start. “Can we get a second opinion?”
Woods seconded that notion.
“It’s going to be a long one,” Woods said. “Up early and start working on it and staying loose and staying ready. It’s just going to be a lot of walking. And last couple of days, it’s definitely testing the body.”
But it didn’t take long for Malnati to realize the bright side of tomorrow’s marathon day of golf. He still had 10+ holes of the third round ahead of him with Woods and then a second 18 to learn from one of his heroes since they will not be re-pairing for the final round. Malnati noted that he spotted Woods a few shots — actually six — but cracked he had Woods right where he wanted him.
“I’m going to go kick his butt,” Malnati said. “You watch. He’s intimidated.”
Actually, Woods said it himself. He’s terrified.