The Tiger Woods of old makes an appearance at The Players

Eric AdelsonColumnist
Yahoo Sports

Call it a comeback.

Call it a comeback within a comeback.

Call it one of the more improbable comebacks in an improbable career.

Tiger Woods ended his Friday on the precipice of the cut line and ended his Saturday on the brink of the leaderboard at The Players Championship after a blistering 7-under 65. It was his best round ever at this tournament, which he has won twice, and it was good enough to vault him into a tie for ninth.

If it wasn’t for Webb Simpson’s stunning 63 in Round 2, Woods would be in a dogfight for the lead. He’s just four strokes back of second, but 11 back of Simpson, who carded a 4-under 68 on Saturday.

The key stat was a front-nine number: Woods took only 11 putts going out, compared to 16 putts on the first nine holes on Thursday. (And that 16 came on the first eight holes, as he technically didn’t register a putt for a fringe hole-out with his putter that day.) That came in large part because of his approach shots, which yielded 15 greens in regulation it total and some makeable putts. Before cooling off at the end of the round, he flirted with what would have been a course record, and he told reporters he considered 10-under on the day as a possibility.

Tiger Woods walks off the 18th hole during the third round of the Players Championship golf tournament. (AP)
Tiger Woods walks off the 18th hole during the third round of the Players Championship golf tournament. (AP)

This kind of day seemed impossible only 18 hours before, as Woods scuffled to a 1-under after his second round and nearly got sent home, making the cut on the number. It was as unmemorable a round as it gets for a golfer who makes headlines pretty much every time he puts spikes on. Woods seemed tired, almost lugubrious, as the heat bore down on him. Saturday, though, he looked 10 years younger and 10 times happier.

There is a caveat: the course is playing like a muni, with greens like welcome mats. “With this heat and humidity,” Woods told reporters, “and these greens as soft as they are, these guys” – the leaders still hadn’t teed off by the time Woods finished – “are gonna tear this place apart.”

That could have been just a smidge of gamesmanship from the legend, but it also happens to be likely. Jordan Spieth also roared into contention with an early tee time, ending his day in a tie for fifth. His 65 was a full 10 shots better than his Thursday score.

Regardless of where Woods finishes, this was the round he needed after a rather unremarkable month. It’s yet more evidence that he’s capable of flashes of brilliance only months after back surgery made simple daily tasks difficult. Despite his mediocre scores on Thursday and Friday, his distance off the tee has been strong all week – another good sign.

Woods’ career has not been known for stirring comebacks, as he traditionally takes the lead early in tournaments and suffocates the rest of the leaderboard on the weekend. This might be a new way of making a Sunday splash.

A lot of people will want to find out.

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