Doubt it or deny it all you want. But the facts are indisputable: after a sterling Saturday 66 at the British Open, Tiger Woods is once again in position to win a major, a decade after his last one.
Woods stood on the 16th tee at Carnoustie on Saturday afternoon, late in the most remarkable round he’s played in many years, watching the arc of his shot into the second of the course’s four wicked closing holes. “Barry Burn,” the hole’s called, named for the narrow waterway that winds along its left edge. It’s a 248-yard par 3, and Woods’ shot was fighting through 12-mph winds coming in off the North Sea.
Woods watched the flight of the ball, and there was a look in his eyes we haven’t seen in years, an intensity and locked-in focus that once terrified every player anywhere near him on the leaderboard. He hadn’t had that searing stare in forever, not since the days when he was sinking 60-foot putts and stomping out dreams.
He’s spent most of the last decade trying to convince us that he still had that mojo, that he was still the same guy who racked up majors the way other players racked up pars, that he could still own the golf world the way he did back in 2000. We didn’t believe him, and every so often, he’d admit that he didn’t really believe himself, either.
It’s time to start believing in Tiger again.
Woods finished Saturday at the British Open with a remarkable six-birdie, one-bogey 66, his best performance in a major since firing another 66 at the 2011 Masters. (For a little perspective, Jordan Spieth was a senior in high school at the time.) After starting the day in a tie for 29th, Woods heads into Sunday’s final round in a tie for sixth, four strokes back of co-leaders Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner.
Woods banged home birdie after birdie on the afternoon, a run highlighted by a 40-foot Hail Mary on the 9th. Five holes later, Woods sank another birdie that put him into a tie for the lead on a weekend in a major.
In the lead again. After the scandals, the back surgeries, the family drama, the missed cuts and withdrawals, the endless frail promises that better days were ahead … and here he was, once again, atop a leaderboard. It’s one of the most incredible comebacks in sports, and the only reason we’re not recognizing it as such is because we’re too close to the moment. That and we’re measuring Tiger Woods against Tiger Woods, meaning anything short of being the most dominant golfer on the planet is not technically back.
Woods didn’t hold the lead for long; the best in the world were playing the same course he was, and soon enough Kevin Kisner, Zach Johnson and Spieth began racking up birdies of their own. But as Woods finished, the wind picked up – the 12-mph gusts may have contributed to his lone bogey, on the 16th hole – and the course cooled off.
If you’re not yet convinced that this weekend’s got something special in store for Woods, take another look at his tee shot on 18. The ball dropped straight toward Barry Burn, that same evil little creek that devoured Jean van de Velde’s championship hopes back in 1999. It would’ve been on-brand for current-era Tiger Woods to drop that tee shot in the water, to kill a brilliant round with a last-minute flameout. Same story as ever: nice start, ugly finish.
Not this time. This time, Woods got the kind of break he hadn’t in many years. His ball cleared the burn by mere inches, kicking forward into the hay. From there, Woods played smart golf, laying up short of yet another bend of the burn, then chipping to within three feet of the cup. One putt later, and Woods was in with a round-saving par, still very much within striking distance of the lead.
Quietly, Woods has been putting together the pieces for a championship right in front of our eyes. He ranks first – first! – on the PGA Tour in Saturday scoring average at 68.5. His driving, his approaches, his scrambling, his putting – all have clicked at one point or another this year, and only the fact that they weren’t all in place at once kept him from where he is right now.
Granted, Woods has a long way to go to win this. There’s a logjam of the world’s finest players ahead of him, and—to use a stat we never thought we’d use again—Woods has never won a major when trailing after 54 holes.
But there’s precedent here. The last two major winners at Carnoustie have come from 10 back (Paul Lawrie, 1999 and Padraig Harrington, 2007). Plus, Woods himself noted earlier this week that the British Open represents his best chance to win another major.
“I’ve always loved playing links golf. It’s my favorite type of golf to play,” he said. “I enjoy this type of golf because it is creative. We’re not going to get the most perfect bounces. You know, a certain shot that is hit you think is a wonderful shot down the middle of the fairway could bounce some weird way. That’s just part of it. And I think that’s the fun challenge of it.” Now that his game’s back in gear, Woods can once again deploy the one weapon no one from his era could ever match: his mind.
Almost none of the players ahead of Woods on the leaderboard ever faced him in his prime – not Spieth, not Kisner, not even Rory McIlroy. For them, Woods was a fading legend, a poster on the wall rather than a force of nature. We’ve long wondered how they’d handle the pressure as one of the greatest in history stalked them on a Sunday. We’re about to find out.
Woods might win the British Open on Sunday, and he might not. But he’s got a fighting chance to win another major, and that’s not something we ever thought we’d say again.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• This has to be the worst blown call in baseball history
• Tiger Woods nearly annihilates British Open spectators
• NFL won’t enforce anthem policy as NFLPA works with league on solution
• Mannix: It’s now up to Melo to decide how the rest of his career plays out