Talk about backspin. Tiger Woods, with all the action of a well struck wedge, spun the golf world back years Saturday, playing his way up the leaderboard of the British Open.
With wall-to-wall spectators pressed against the ropes to cheer him on or just get a glimpse of him, Woods put on a show at Carnoustie, making six birdies — punctuated by his signature fist pump — and finishing with a sizzling 66.
It was his best score in a weekend round of a major since the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
The 14-time Grand Slam winner, a 25-to-1 shot at the start of this tournament, is squarely in the hunt to claim another major championship, something he hasn’t done since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Woods is in a knot of players at five under par. A trio of Americans — defending champion Jordan Spieth, Kevin Kisner and San Diegan Xander Schauffele — leads the tournament at nine under.
“It’s been a few years since I felt like this,” said Woods, who hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since 2013, when he won five of them. “I played pretty similar to this at the Players Championship. Obviously, the fifth major, possibly, but not like this in one of these big four events.”
Carnoustie has played three different ways on the three days of the tournament. The fairways were bone dry Thursday and hard as concrete, with huge roll-outs. Rain softened the course Friday, with the sun breaking through in the afternoon. And Saturday was idyllic, with fluffy clouds and gentle winds.
The forecast Sunday calls for those breezes to turn to gusts of up to 25 mph, the kind that explain this course’s “Car-nasty” nickname.
“We played almost every hole with a little bit of a helping wind today,” Spieth said. “There were a few holes that obviously didn’t. The way that it moved throughout the day and the timing that we were playing those holes was ideal. So that was lucky.
“And it won’t be the case [Sunday]. It’s going to be a meaty start, not to mention the last few holes to finish.”
As ESPN statisticians noted, Spieth is the British Open’s first defending champion since Woods in 2006 to hold at least a share of the lead after 54 holes. Spieth said he’s not surprised by how well Woods played.
“He seemed confident walking off the putting green today, the little that we talked,” he said. “I was doing an early session, and he was about to go to the tee.
“And the way he’s striking those two- or three-irons, he’s certainly going to be in it [Sunday], which is really exciting for us. I’ve always wanted to battle it out in a major with Tiger. Who hasn’t? It’s kind of a dream come true just to have the opportunity. It’s nice that he’s on point. It’s really good for the sport, obviously, for the extra interest.”
As usual, Woods had the most robust gallery Saturday, but even that swelled as he birdied holes 9, 10, and 11. It was as if someone tilted the ground sideways and tapped everyone over to his side of the course.
Shaun Norris, who had never met Woods before being paired with him Saturday, noticed the gallery went from five or 10 people deep at the start of their round to 15 or 20 by the turn.
“It's crazy,” Norris said. “Absolutely crazy to think so many people can follow a person. There's a couple of holes that people may be standing 15, 20 deep on each side. I think best word to describe it all is the way Russell Knox [who played with Woods in the first two rounds] put it, it's like playing with a mythical creature. It doesn't feel real.”
Woods, who started the day at even par, led the tournament for about 20 minutes at six under. He dropped a shot on the par-three 16th, however, and had to scramble to make par on 18 after his ball nearly bounced into the burn.
“I didn’t feel like I really made a bad swing until 18,” he said. “I really felt like I had control of the golf ball today. And on top of that, I made some longer putts, which was nice.
“There were a bunch of guys that were putting up great scores, and the course was getable. I didn’t want to be too far back if the guys got to 10 under par today. I had to stay within reach. And five is definitely within reach.”
Norris asked Woods to autograph a couple of gloves for him after the round, gifts for some pals back home. A memorable experience for all — well, almost all.
“The only one who was unhappy was my mother,” the South African said. “She couldn’t get close enough to the ropes to watch me.”