PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – An exhaustive three-year pursuit came to an end Saturday morning at TPC Sawgrass.
Tiger Woods finally caught up to his own reputation.
Woods shot 7-under 65 in Round 3 of the Players Championship and could have gone lower. He found the fairway consistently, aimed fearlessly at flagsticks and made six birdies en route to a front-nine 30.
It seemed to come out of nowhere after two average rounds to start the week, but make no mistake – Woods has been building toward a day like this. Two months ago at the Honda Classic it became clear that those who wrote Woods off and left his career for dead were wrong.
“Eventually I was going to put all the pieces together and today, for the most part, I did that,” Woods said.
Woods proved capable of catching fire in short bursts earlier this season. He raced up leaderboards when he had his good stuff and manufactured unembarrassing scores when he didn’t.
Saturday was simply a result of that process. The payoff included accurate driving, tight iron shots and a hot putter all at his disposal on the same day. It peaked with a 7-foot birdie putt to go 8 under through 12 and reach T-5 on the leaderboard at 9 under overall. It ended with a lip-out birdie attempt at 16 and two strong pars to cap a round in which the course record of 63 and maybe even 59 seemed in reach.
“Worst score he probably could have shot,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “Having said that, we’ll take it. It’s about time.”
It was Woods’ lowest score since the first round of the 2015 Wyndham Championship and his best score relative to par since a 9-under 61 in Round 2 of the 2013 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational.
There was plenty of room to catch the action when he teed off alongside Mackenzie Hughes at 9 a.m., Woods’ voice still audible from outside the ropes when he gave Hughes props for a nice par save at one.
Woods rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt to get to 2 under for the week and a fan off the second fairway had some advice for the young man score display for the group.
“Get ready to put a three on there,” he said.
Woods did indeed get to 3 under with a birdie at the par-5 second. He made a nine-foot birdie putt at four and by the time he cashed 16-footer for birdie at five, word was out and the crowd was awake and the place was up for grabs.
“I finally got off to a good start,” Woods said. “I birdied the first couple of holes and I just kept it rolling from there. I hit a lot of good shots today. It was nice to see a few putts go in.”
In the middle of the frenzy was 27-year-old Hughes, who had never played with Woods and is such a big fan he couldn’t find the courage to introduce himself earlier this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“Sitting next to him in the player locker room, both eating lunch. He was five feet from me,” Hughes said. “I had no really valid excuse to say, ‘Hey, I’m Mackenzie Hughes,’ so I just kind of sat quietly and listened to him like a fly on the wall.”
He got the full Woods experience Saturday and earned his spot with a 4-under 68. He chatted with LaCava while walking off the 10th tee, providing answers to introductory questions like whether or not he had kids, how old he was, etc.
With Woods, he had to fake it a little bit.
“I’m asking stuff about him, but I pretty much know everything about him cause I’m a huge fan,” Hughes said. “I just tried to play it cool and not sound like a total dork.”
He said he gained a new appreciation for Woods and how he deals with the crowds and the amount of yelling, especially during a round when they really had something significant to yell about.
Woods was completely dialed in Saturday and didn’t interact with fans much at all. He smiled but kept his eyes mostly straightforward walking from green to tee. It seems like he doesn’t even hear the fans at times like this, and in some ways that’s true.
Woods played a practice round with Harold Varner III earlier in the week and Varner asked him how he stayed focused amid the insanity.
Woods asked him if he ever reads a book while the TV is on in the background and Varner said he does.
“He’s like, ‘You hear the noise, but you’re so focused on whatever you’re doing you just blank it out,’” Varner said. “I thought that was one of the greatest illustrations I’ve ever heard.”
That helps explains why Woods still looks so locked in on the course at age 42, completely committed to this process which just reached a big breakthrough on a low-key morning near Jacksonville Beach.
“I think it is,” Woods said. “As I’ve told you guys this week, I got my playing feels back and it’s just a matter of executing and putting the shots together.”