ATLANTA — The chaos that constantly surrounds him can never be overstated. An incessant combination of cheers, chatter and combustion follows him from green to tee, down the fairway, with moments of peace coming only during his shots.
You wonder how Tiger Woods manages to deal with the level of noise and distraction even the greatest minds would have difficulty pushing aside. Yet, there he was doing it again Saturday at East Lake, this time while leading a golf tournament and dealing with an old, but new, set of emotions.
Woods took a 3-shot lead into the final round of the Tour Championship and is on the cusp of his 80th PGA Tour victory — but first in more than five years.
For so long, and in so many instances, the story could already be written, with just the mundane details yet to be added. Woods has been money with third-round leads, especially of 3 shots or more. He has never failed to deliver, 32 times going on to victory when holding this wide of a margin.
Woods’ overall record of 53-4 on the PGA Tour with at least a tie for the lead is mind-blowing itself. Imagine getting to this position 57 times. The first one? Way back in 1996, when as a 20-year-old making his third start as a pro, Woods led by a shot, only to get beat by an aging veteran named Ed Fiori, who possessed a strange grip and whom Woods to this day still refers to as “The Gripper.”
The last was perhaps his most crushing loss. Woods lost a shot at a 15th major when he was denied at the 2009 PGA Championship by Y.E. Yang — who never won on the PGA Tour again.
That is likely a reminder to Woods that nothing is certain, especially now. As much as he’s done to get to this point, posting six top-10s this year in a comeback season that has defied belief, Woods has struggled to put four complete rounds together, and simply not been in this good of a position.
How does he handle it?
“I felt very comfortable when I got in the mix there at Tampa [the Valspar Championship] even though it was very early in the start to this year,” Woods said. “And because of that, I felt comfortable when I got to Bay Hill, when I grabbed the lead at The Open Championship.
“Things that didn’t really feel abnormal, even though it’s been years, literally years, since I’ve been in those spots. But I think I’ve been in those spots enough times that muscle memory — I guess I remembered it, and I felt comfortable in those spots.”
Woods sure looked it Saturday, when it might have been easy to get caught up in all the hysteria. He birdied the first hole, then ran off five in a row starting at the third. He made it look easy, and you wondered if Sunday was just going to be a coronation to that long-awaited victory.
Of course, it was never going to be that easy. A bogey at the ninth followed. Another at the 16th. He was unable to birdie the par-5 18th, despite an excellent approach that just traveled too long into a back bunker.
On Sunday, Rory McIlroy, who will play with Woods, will want to play the foil. A four-time major winner, McIlroy, 29, has played with Woods just once in a final round, back at the 2012 Masters when both were well out of contention.
Justin Rose, who played with Woods on Saturday, is ranked No. 1 in the world for a reason. Rose showed his resolve after opening with consecutive bogeys, then rallying to shoot 68 to stay in touch with Woods. He’s seen plenty of the 14-time major champion over the years and is just as curious as the rest of us as to how it will play out.
“I’m sure it will be hard for him tomorrow,” Rose said. “It will probably be for him, trying to win for the first time again. It’s been a long time. But he has as much experience to draw on that he’s going to be a hard guy to chase down tomorrow.”
Tiger Woods cards a five-under 65 and holds a 54-hole lead at the Tour Championship, crediting his putting and reinvented body.
Woods is in a familiar spot, but it’s been a long time coming. Even after shooting an opening-round 62 two weeks ago at the BMW Championship, Woods found himself trailing heading into the weekend, fighting to get in contention.
There has been some good play and some solid chances, but aside from the Valspar Championship, where he was just a stroke back going into the final round and couldn’t make up that difference, it’s mostly been a matter of trying to come from too far back.
“You certainly want to be leading regardless, simple mathematics, but he’s been a pretty good front-runner his whole career and obviously that’s going to help,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “In the past, he’s been chasing, chasing, chasing and people want him to win so badly and he gets close but you have to remember there are people behind him who are capable of going low.
“It’ll be nice to know that everybody will be in front of us for a change. That will help a little bit. But he’s got two great players behind him. I’m not saying it’s going to be a piece of cake. But you’d rather be leading by 3 than be 3 behind.”
McIlroy and Rose don’t promise to make it easy. Both are more than capable of putting together the low round that would ruin Woods’ plans.
But this is likely to be more about Woods. How does he deal with the cauldron now? The one he handled with so much ease for all those many years. It’s a different time, a different Tiger. And it’s a story still to be written.