At rain-softened and gettable Aronimink, Tiger Woods needed a low round Saturday afternoon to get in contention and end a winless drought that has spanned five years.
Sorry, did we say low? Lower.
He went low – a bogey-free, four-under 66 that featured beautiful driving and an array of birdie opportunities. But it wasn’t lower. Truthfully, to really have a chance on Sunday it needed to be lowest. But on this day too many of Woods’s birdie putts slid past the hole, and after his fellow contenders poured them in all around him, Woods must play catch-up over his final 18 holes. He’s tied for 11th place at 12 under par, five shots behind leader Justin Rose.
Saturday’s third round was delayed to noon ET after heavy morning rains pounded the course. The field was allowed to play lift, clean and place in closely mown areas and just like that, Aronimink – which had already surrendered four rounds of 62, including one to Woods – was once again ripe for cherry-red numbers.
Woods started quickly by dropping a 20-foot birdie putt on 1 and a downhill 11-footer for another birdie on 2. He had started the day five shots behind overnight leader Xander Schauffele. Saturdays – “moving day” in the golf lexicon – had been kind to Woods this season. Entering the BMW, his third-round scoring average this season stood at 68.38, and he averaged a 12-position improvement. And now this, a birdie-birdie start? That’s moving!
He had another 10-footer for birdie on No. 3, but his putt burned the edge. It would turn out to be the start of a dry spell that likely cost him a shot at this title. On 4 his missed his first fairway when he blocked his driver right of the fairway and into a juicy patch of rough. He knocked it safely on the green and two-putted.
Then more Grade-A birdie chances slipped away, as Woods kept reaching greens but blowing putts. A 10-footer on 5. Twenty feet on 7. Another 10 feet on 8. Miss, miss, miss.
“I hit the ball well enough to shoot a low score and I got off to a quick start,” Woods said. “I was looking up on the board and everyone seemed like they were 3 under through eight, 5 under through 9. I was only 2-under par. I wasn’t doing much.”
On the par-5 9th, Woods ripped a 3-wood just short of the green in two and deftly bumped his pitch shot up the bank to 11 feet. His downhill putt tracked beautifully, but took a cruel, 360-degree power lip-out. He turned in two under, but he was still five back, right where he started the round, and more players had passed him by.
In fact, playing a few groups behind him, Rose shot a smoking font-nine 29 to seize the lead from Schauffele.
Woods’s birdie chances continued to slide by (five separate misses inside 15 feet) until the par-3 14th, when he stuck an iron to 10 feet and walked in the putt, which he punctuated with a wry smile.
What else could he do? He kicked in a birdie on the par-5 16th and made two pars coming home. For the day he hit 16 out of 18 greens in regulation. Cashing in just four birdies from that many opportunities is a below-average day, but 66 is 66. Let’s call it what it is: very good.
With so many players still in front of him and a golf course that simply isn’t producing bogeys (not sure the TV broadcast showed one all afternoon) it appears Woods won’t raise a trophy at Aronimink. But if he holds his spot, he’s projected to make the top 30 in the FedEx standings and will qualify for the Tour Championship field in two weeks. Woods hasn’t seen East Lake since 2013. The Ryder Cup looms large at month’s end, and Woods is playing there, too. He seemed to enjoy himself in the rain on Saturday. Why not? There’s plenty to look forward to.