ST. LOUIS — They came to Bellerive to believe.
To believe that the clock had been turned back to 2006, when Tiger Woods was the No. 1 player in the world. To believe that the player that nearly every golfer used to fear when he appeared on the leaderboard would work his magic in the standings once again. To believe that Tiger Woods, at 42, still had what it took to win his first major in over 10 years.
Woods gave the raucous gallery at the PGA Championship something to believe in during his third round on Saturday. A string of three birdies in a row pushed Woods to 4-under through his first eight holes of the round. That final birdie, at No. 8, got him to 8-under for the tournament and just two shots back of the leaders, who were just getting their rounds underway.
“Kind of reminded me of being in the vortex a lot of years ago,” playing partner Stewart Cink said. “It was awesome. Being in Tiger’s group is always exciting. … Hearing the crowd, and Tiger’s performing great. It was like turning back the hands of the clock.”
As Woods walked to the ninth hole, his name was fifth on the leaderboard behind the likes of Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas, three of the world’s top 10 players and all under the age of 30. They weren’t around when Woods was dominating majors. Was this their time to feel what it was like to be on the receiving end of a Woods move up the leaderboard? Was Tiger’s run going to continue into a back nine that had given him fits all week?
No. And it was such a tease.
Woods made the turn at 4-under for the day, and that’s where he ended it, leaving him four strokes back of third-round leader Brooks Koepka.
But he could be — should be — much, much closer.
He had birdie putts at No. 11. And 12. And 13. And 14. And 15. All legit opportunities. All missed.
The kicker came at 17.
As Woods grabbed a club to attack the green of the par-5, a cheer erupted. The cheer turned into a roar when Woods’ second shot ended up within 20 feet of the hole, providing a makable eagle putt. A putt to put him at 10-under for the tournament and possibly the closest pursuer to leader Koepka. A putt to erase the previous five misses.
If this wasn’t the time when Woods was going to make a statement that he’s close to being his old self, what would?
And then the putt skated nearly five feet past the hole. And the birdie putt lipped out. And the cheers turned to groans that could have deflated the Goodyear blimp buzzing overhead. Instead of breaking double digits under par in a major for the first time in what feels like forever, Woods remained stuck at 8-under.
He could have moved to 9-under at No. 16 when he held his putter in the air with his arm outstretched, sure that he had hit his birdie into the hole. It stopped short.
Woods could have been at 9-under at No. 12, when he missed his birdie and had just a foot for par. Or at No. 11, when another birdie putt missed.
Or even at 18, when yet another 15-foot birdie opportunity ended up within a foot of the hole.
“I left pretty much every single putt short on the back nine,” Woods said. “The greens were getting fuzzy, they’re getting slow, and I didn’t hit the putts quite hard enough. And I made sure on 17 I did. And I blew it by about four feet and then pulled the next one.”
Jared Sanders was one of the ones who wanted to believe. He traveled to St. Louis from Dallas for his first PGA Championship. He and friend Seth Rogers wore tiger onesies for the third round and staked out seats off the fairway on the 10th hole for when Woods made the turn.
The decision to wear the onesies was easy. And also self-evident.
“Tiger,” Sanders said.
Sanders was at Bellerive on Wednesday. It was his first time to see Woods. Every other PGA Tour event he’d attended didn’t include Woods in the field.
“I almost cried on Wednesday when I saw him,” Sanders said. “Big fan, favorite athlete of all-time.”
The onesies, which the pair purchased for $33 each on Amazon, looked a little toasty on a muggy midwestern August afternoon. But the two didn’t seem to mind as they pondered what hole they’d watch Woods at next.
Others had that plan, too. Crowds came to a standstill every time Woods addressed his ball. When playing partners Cink and Webb Simpson prepared to make a shot, galleries were constantly in motion as fans tried to figure out where to best watch Woods’ next and get a glimpse of him for likely the first, and potentially only time.
Woods played 29 holes Saturday — 11 as a continuation of the rain-delayed Round 2 and the 18 for Round 3. And when he was done, the fatigue of the day bore out as the sweat dripped off of his face. The 66 he carded could have been a course-record tying 63. Or a 64 as he second-guessed what he should have done with that eagle putt on No. 17.
“I’m tired,” Woods said. “I am definitely tired. Twenty-nine holes, it’s not necessarily the physical, it’s this mentally grinding that hard for 29 holes in this heat. It was a long day.”
He had a prime opportunity to enter Sunday final round closer to the top. If not the top. And he knew it. Instead, Woods is four back of Koepka and chasing four others in between them.
If the 15th and most improbable major win for Woods happens this weekend, it’ll be the first time he’s won one while trailing after the third round. With a back nine at Bellerive that he can’t figure out and Koepka gunning for his second major of the year, the odds are far from being in his favor.
But improbable isn’t impossible. The gallery at Bellerive held on to that for dear life on Saturday. They’ll grip even tighter on Sunday.
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