PALM HARBOR, Fla. — The idea of an 80th PGA Tour victory for Tiger Woods seemed all but forgotten just a few months ago. But now the 14-time major champion is just one day away from that possibility.
It will be far from easy, as a slew of excellent players are in the mix and upstart Corey Conners from Canada continues to lead, showing no signs of faltering.
But Woods is just one shot back heading into what promises to be a gut-churning final round Sunday at Innisbrook Resort, where he shot a third-round, 4-under 67 on the Copperhead course to pick up more momentum in his impressive comeback from spinal fusion surgery.
“I’m excited,” said Woods, who is tied for second with Brandt Snedeker and former U.S. Open champion Justin Rose. “I’ve been ready to go. I’m excited to play. It’s going to be fun, lot of fun, and these [fans] have been great. They’ve been fired up, and it’s exciting for all of us.”
The 67 is the lowest score in Woods’ 13 rounds since his latest surgery; it marked the first time he has shot consecutive rounds in the 60s since he opened the 2015 Wyndham Championship with scores of 64-65-68. Woods was the 36-hole leader there and trailed by two entering the final round before falling to a tie for 10th — still his best finish since the first of four back surgeries in 2014.
This is the 70th time Woods will be tied or within one of the lead entering the final round; he won on 62 of those occasions. Still, it has been a long time since Woods has experienced this kind of rush. He hasn’t won since the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August 2013. And he hasn’t won when trailing entering the final round since the AT&T National in 2012.
Snedeker is vying for a Masters bid. Rose, ranked fifth in the world, has finished in the top 10 in 11 of his past 13 starts, with three victories. Sam Burns, who is three back of Conners, went head-to-head with Woods two weeks ago at the Honda Classic and beat him by two strokes.
“It feels good to be up here,” Woods said. “I’ve been in this position many times. I’ve won my share of events here and overseas, and so I like to be one back or near the lead. I’ve been here before. But I have to execute. There’s a lot of guys up there with a chance.”
For the day, Woods made five birdies and a bogey while playing with Snedeker.
“It was great. I can confirm he’s back, the roars are back,” said Snedeker, who also shot 67. Snedeker will be grouped with Woods again Sunday (1:50 p.m. ET). “It’s fun to hear the crowd going crazy again and realize how excited we are in having him back out here and playing the way he is. He’s playing great.”
“I was able to feed off a lot of energy today,” Snedeker added. “That’s probably why I played so good. Get me to focus real hard on every shot and did a good job of that today. Do it again tomorrow, probably be crazier tomorrow.”
Snedeker, who returned from his own injury (rib cage) last fall, is trying to make the Masters field either by winning here or by moving into the top 50 in the Official World Ranking the week of the year’s first major. He now has played with Woods four times this year (Farmers Insurance and Honda Classic twice). Woods had scored better in every round until Saturday.
“Once I played with him at Torrey and saw up close that he was playing pain-free … no, this doesn’t surprise me at all,” Snedeker said.
Woods began the third round two strokes behind Conners, who shot a 68. Conners holds the 54-hole lead at 9-under 204.
Birdies at the par-4 third and 614-yard, par-5 fifth — where he hit a driver off the tee and a 3-wood for his second shot over the green — kept Woods close. Then he holed a chip shot from over the ninth green for a birdie that brought him into a tie and electrified the crowd.
“I started smiling,” Snedeker said. “I was laughing. It’s just him to a tee. I see him do stuff like that; let’s you know he’s back and enjoying and having fun. Just kind of vintage Tiger.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Woods’ return has been his short game. He hit 14 greens Saturday and got up and down to save par (or better) three of four times. He has done so for the tournament 14 of 20 times. But this was the first time he has holed a shot from off the green this year.
“We were semi-joking back at the house that I hit so many good chips that haven’t gone in yet,” Woods said. “I’m due to hole one, and I finally holed one. That was nice. It was nice to get the momentum, keep the momentum going.”
Woods followed with a birdie at the 10th, but he failed to convert from short range at the par-5 11th. He had a slick downhill 10-footer at the 12th that lipped out. Then he made his major mistake of the day, hitting over the green at the 13th, leaving him with a nearly impossible chip that he left in a bunker. He blasted out and made the putt for his only bogey.
Woods rebounded with a two-putt birdie at the 14th, then he hit the final four greens and made pars.
“The people were pumped up,” said Joe LaCava, his caddie. “He’s back in action and everyone’s rooting for him. It’s great. They get a little carried away at times and you’ve got to calm ’em down. You feel like you’re back to ’12 and ’13 (when Woods combined to win eight times) — back to the good old days for sure.”
Conners, 26, got into the field Monday as an alternate and had never been better than 21st following any round of a PGA Tour event. He’s now led all three days here, shooting scores of 67-69-68.
On Saturday, he played in the group behind Woods. And Conners will do so again Sunday alongside Rose (2 p.m. ET).
While at Kent State, Conners listed Woods as one of the golfers he’d most like to play with in a foursome. Although that won’t happen Sunday, he’ll get to see plenty of Woods while trying to win his first tournament on tour.
“It’s really cool,” Conners said. “Fun position to be. Kind of what I work for and everybody works for out here. Really exciting.”