ATLANTA — At the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, Justin Rose shot 67 and bested his fellow playing competitor Tiger Woods by two strokes, but Rose came off the course convinced that he’d played with a version of Woods capable of climbing his way back to the top of the mountain.
“I saw for myself that he could still make the shots,” Rose said. “I thought the comeback was for real, for sure.”
Rose and Woods will have a chance to renew acquaintances again this weekend as they share the 36-hole lead of the Tour Championship at seven-under 133, two shots ahead of Rory McIlroy in the finale of the season-long FedEx Cup.
All year long, a parade of today’s young stars have all but prayed, if not begged, for a chance to stare down Woods with a title on the line. After his round Justin Thomas, who at the Hero World Challenge last year said he was looking forward to trying to “kick Tiger’s butt,” reiterated that sentiment.
“I know there’s probably nobody else I’d rather be down at the last hole tied with having a chance to win than him,” Thomas said. “It would be pretty cool.”
Then Thomas added one caveat: “I’d rather be one or two ahead, saying that.”
Thomas and the Tour’s young guns don’t have any scar tissue of being beaten to a pulp by Woods during his prime. Rickie Fowler has been around long enough to be stomped by Woods on his way to victories at The Memorial and Arnold Palmer Invitational back in the day and he was left in the wake of Woods on the back nine Friday. Fowler, who shared the overnight lead with Woods, surged in front at seven under standing on the 10th tee before making four bogeys and signing for two-over 72 and fall four strokes off the pace.
Meanwhile, Woods sprayed tee shots left and right on the front nine and continued to escape unscathed. When he rescued par at the eighth after drilling his tee shot at least 40 yards off line to the right, one writer called it highway robbery.
“He should get three-to five-years for that,” I said.
“With good behavior,” the reporter said.
Woods rolled in a birdie at the second, but pulled a four-foot par putt at nine to remain five-under at the turn. Spaniard Jon Rahm roared to a five-under 30, but he faded in the sweltering heat and only Billy Horschel and Patrick Cantlay with 65s managed to go low on Friday.
Woods kept digging into his bag of tricks to make pars despite missing fairways at Nos. 10 and 11. His high-wire act led another reporter to ask McIlroy after his round if he was told that one of the leaders had hit only two fairways on the front and made one birdie through 11, what would he say?
“Not surprising,” McIlory said.
“Is that a testament to Tiger’s grinding or…”
At that point McIlory interrupted the reporter and said, “I thought you were talking about Justin Rose.”
“Yeah, look, he’s done it his whole career,” McIlory continued. “It’s nothing new.”
Try telling that to Woods. He’s had to revamp his swing to adjust to playing with a surgically-fused back. When asked how much his game has improved since being paired with Rose at Bay Hill in March, Woods said, “A lot. My body is different, my game is different. I have all new equipment since then. Everything has been evolving and moving and changing since I first started coming back at Torrey (Pines).”
But watching Woods make recovery shots and mark down pars looked a lot like a movie we’ve all seen before. (Woods leads the field in scrambling this week, getting up-and-down on 9 of 11 attempts.) Mark McCumber, the former 10-time Tour winner working as an analyst for the SiriusXM/PGA Tour Network, called it a vintage Tiger round and summed up the Woods’ performance quite eloquently: “It’s either the old Tiger Woods or the Tiger Woods of old. He’s not playing like he’s 42 years old.”
Beginning at the 12th, Woods heated up. He stiffed his approach to 4 feet to take sole possession of the lead. At 13, he made a sloppy error, dumping his approach from 154 yards into the right greenside bunker.
“Only place I couldn’t miss it is anything right of that flag, and I did,” he said.
But his vaunted Scotty Cameron Newport 2 putter bailed him out. He canned the 8-foot par putt and then sank an 18-foot birdie at 14 (earning a baby fist pump) and pointed at the hole as his 24-foot birdie putt dropped at 15. At this point, Woods owned a two-stroke lead over Rose, but just as at the Open Championship, as soon as he grabbed the lead he gave it back.
Woods tugged his drive left into the wiry Bermuda grass and his 9-iron failed to carry a bunker only 130 yards in front of him. With his ball buried in the front lip, he had no choice but to explode out sideways and made a double bogey.
Both Rose and Woods converted short birdie putts at the par-5 18th, with Woods, one of only three players to reach the green in two, particularly pleased with his finish.
“You know, after everything I did today, to be able to turn that over on 18 and roast it down there and hit off that lie, a high, drawing 5-iron was pretty sweet,” Woods said.
For Woods, it marks his first 36-hole lead of his comeback and the 48th time overall that he’s held the second-round lead or co-lead. He’s gone on to win 43 of 48 times, but Rose, the World No. 1, and McIlroy are among a star-studded group of contenders looking to deprive Woods of career victory No. 80. When asked if he has thought about what that win would mean to him in the context of all the victory that have come before, Woods played coy.
“I need to get there first and that’s my responsibility to get there,” Woods said. “Hopefully, I’ll be answering that question come Sunday night.”