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Tiger's Four-Under 67 At Riviera Has Us Asking A Once-Ridiculous Question: Could He Actually Win Again?

Michael Owens. Getty Images.

Jon Rahm holds a three-shot lead over Max Homa at Riviera with 18 holes to play after his second six-under 65 of the week. The Spaniard has continued his remarkable run of form this week and finds himself in pole position to capture his third victory—and his second designated event win—of 2023. It'd be the fastest any PGA Tour player won three events in a calendar year since Johnny Miller in 1975.

"The fact that Tiger is the host, the fact that he's out here playing and the history of this golf course as a venue is two reasons why I would love to be able to win here," Rahm said. "It's a very select group of champions and you'll join -- you join a list of champions that frankly Tiger and Jack have never joined, which probably never happens on any other golf course but this one, right? It would be an honor.

And yet, judging by the crowds on-site and the online chatter, the main story on Saturday was the play of a 47-year-old man ranked outside the top 1000 in the world. 

As Tiger Woods carved perfect iron shot after perfect iron shot around Riviera on Saturday, your mind couldn’t help but ponder a question that seemed utterly ridiculous just three days ago: Could this guy…could he actually win again?

Granted, Woods is far from contention at the Genesis Invitational. A three-over 74 on Friday saw him make the cut on the number, and there were 59 players ahead of him when he began his round on the 10th tee on Saturday morning, and even after his four-under 67 he’s a full dozen shots behind Jon Rahm’s lead in a tie for 26th.

Still, the third round presented Woods an opportunity to do something he could not in any start since the accident: progress as the week wears on. Woods made the cut at both the Masters and the PGA Championship, but his weekend performances at both were hard to watch. At Augusta, Woods shot his worst Masters score as a professional with a Saturday 78 and couldn’t do any better on Sunday. At Southern Hills, he trudged through excruciating pain en route to a third-round 79 before deciding he’d rather fire up the PJ than play Sunday’s final round. Prior to this week, he had shown zero ability to walk four rounds without having his body and his game tap out around the halfway mark.

Saturday’s four-under 67, then, marked the clearest sign of progress we’ve seen from post-accident Woods. He’s been pounding the ball all week, his ball speed cruising in the mid 170s and occasionally reaching the 180 threshold. He maintained that speed Saturday. 

“(Christiaan Bezuidenhout) and I were talking about it,” said Matthias Schwab, a perfectly healthy 28-year-old who played with Woods Saturday. “He outdrove us on almost every hole, which was a little bit sure surprising.”

Woods paired that speed with a fantastic iron display that brought…well, it brought vintage Tiger Woods to mind. He was asked if, when he's in the flow of a round like that, it feels like old times. 

"Feel-wise, yes, I do," Woods said after the round. "As I was saying earlier, I can hit golf balls, I can do all that stuff, I can chip and putt back home and I can do all that stuff. But I haven't walked and played a lot, so that's the challenge. The ebb and flow of adrenaline, I haven't had adrenaline in my system for a while, so getting the numbers right, that's taken a little bit of time.

For as one-dimensional as he’s been off the tee—Woods admitted Friday that he doesn’t have a high bomb or a draw in his current arsenal, and that’s relying exclusively on the hard fade—he was back at his shot-shaping best with his approaches into greens. Woods loves to start shots in the middle of the green and have them curve toward the pin. On the famously gentle par-5 1st, after making the turn in two under 34, Woods played a low-running cut from a tricky lie in the right rough that barely skirted the front bunker, pitched on the front of the green and trickled out to 36 inches. Eagle. On the difficult par-4 5th, Woods sent a towering high-draw 8 iron that plopped on the front edge and crawled to within 12 feet for birdie. He converted. 

“Today was better. I felt like I made some nice adjustments with my putting and that was the thing that held make back yesterday. I've driven it well the last three days, my iron play was been good. And the firm conditions I like, that's kind of right up my alley with iron play. Just wish I could have putted a little bit better yesterday. I made a few adjustments today and some of the putts went in.

When Woods did occasionally misfire, he was able to salvage pars with his best short-game display of the week. He missed the green on both par-3s on the front side, his back nine, but chipped to glorified tap-in range both times. The lone blemish on the card came at the par-4 7th, where caddie Joe LaCava said his approach came up three yards short on a perfect line. He finished with two solid pars on 8 and 9 for his best round of this latest comeback. 

“That’s what’s more surprising than anything else—the golf has been nice,” LaCava said. “But the fact that he’s holding up, looking healthy, and not tiring at the end of rounds is a good sign.”

As Woods headed up toward Riviera’s clubhouse, the on-site mood veered toward euphoria. Here was a legend of the game, who most everyone thought was finished, shooting 67 in difficult conditions. But as he satisfied his post-round media obligations, two stark reminders of the challenge he still faces killed some of the buzz. First, Woods limped considerably after the round, clearly in significant pain—even if it’s better than it was last year. 

“My core is so much stronger than it was then. That's one of the reasons why I've got the speed that I have. I can't use the ground, as I was saying in the press conference earlier this week, I can't use the ground like I used to and explode, I have to use my core to get speed. I've always had speed, but I've had to use it a different way but also be careful with my back being fused. Just had to find different ways to do it. It's a challenge and that's the fun part about it.”

As he was speaking, Jon Rahm was playing. He poured in a 24-footer for birdie at the 18th to stretch his lead to three and send a clear message as to who's the Alpha Dog in professional golf at the minute. Because Woods is only going to play the big events going forward, he’s going to have to beat Rahm, and Homa, and Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas and all the other big boys if he’s going to get that 83rd win. To do so, he’ll have to string together four rounds that don’t include any lackluster 74s. That task is made umpteen times more difficult by his inability to play his way into tournament shape—after his comeback from back surgery, Woods played 18 events in 2018 and five more in 2019 before winning the Masters. That allowed him to knock off any competitive rust, but it's simply not possible this time. Woods wouldn't rule out playing once more before the Masters, but he also said he's only thinking as far as his recovery process for tomorrow's round. Assuming he continues playing five or six times a year, and that his body won't allow him to compete at this level for more than a few more years, he simply won't have many chances to win No. 83. 

It’s a Herculean task, for sure, but one that feels a bit more possible after Saturday. As Woods said: It’s a challenge, and that’s the fun part.