Tiger Woods teed off when the leaders were having breakfast prior to Saturday’s third round of the Players Championship.
By lunchtime, Woods had moved 60 spots up on the leaderboard and into tie for ninth place, drawing Sunday crowds and roars on his way to a seven-under-par 65 — his career-best score at TPC Sawgrass during 64 rounds.
Woods’ round featured a front-nine 30, a season-high eight birdies, just one bogey and a couple of missed opportunities on the back nine that cost him a shot at a course-record 63.
“To be eight under there through 12, realistically I probably could have got a couple more out of it and got to 10 for the day,” Woods said. “But I’ll take it.”
Another crowd favorite, Jordan Spieth, matched Woods’ 65, but their performances did little to put them in contention.
Webb Simpson made certain of that.
After he tied the course record with a 63 Friday, Simpson carded a seemingly easy 68 during the third round, extending a five-shot lead after 36 holes into a tournament-record seven-shot advantage entering the final round.
His performance reached the point of absurdity when he made eagle from the back bunker on the par-five 11th hole to reach 19 under.
The 32-year-old ended the day there after a spectacular birdie on the island 17th and an up-and-down par on No. 18 to tie Greg Norman for the lowest 54-hole lead in 1994. Norman went on to set the tournament record at 24-under 264.
“I don’t think it matters until I win,” said Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion. “All those things that have happened, I’d love to know them if I win tomorrow. But I’m trying not to dwell there. I’m trying to just look forward, do what I always do on a Saturday night of a golf tournament and get ready tomorrow morning.
“That’s kind of where I’m at.”
Simpson’s historic stranglehold on the lead at TPC sucked the life out of the tournament. The galleries had thinned by the time he finished. But earlier in the day, Woods had the Stadium Course rocking.
“I have been doing this event a long time,” longtime NBC analyst Gary Koch said. “I can’t recall so many people here so early on Saturday morning.”
Woods ended the second round squarely on the one-under cut line, searching for his game and 14 shots behind Simpson. But on Saturday, all the pieces fell in place from the opening hole for the 42-year-old.
Woods’ iron play was spot on and his putter red hot as he birdied four of the first five holes. He finished the day hitting 15 of 18 greens in regulation and sinking 99 feet in putts to finish with his lowest score to par sinceAugust 2013.
“I birdied the first couple of holes and I just kept it rolling from there,” he said. “It was nice to see a few putts go in. I hit a lot of quality shots and 65 was probably as high as I could have shottoday, which was kind of nice.”
Knowing the scoring conditions and accessible pin placements, Woods did not expect to end the third round in the top 10.
Instead, a number of top-20 players struggled, led by Jon Rahm (77), Brooks Koepka (74), Sergio Garcia (75) and Alex Noren (77).
To climb the leaderboard again Sunday, Woods still will have to contend with plenty of firepower.
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is 10 under and former PGA Championship winners Jason Day, Jason Dufner and Jimmy Walker are nine under.
Woods and Spieth will go off in the fifth-to-last pairing. It will give fans something to anticipate, at least.
No one has ever blown a seven-shot lead after 54 holes, and the huge edge has removed any final-round suspense for anyone but Simpson, whose last win was in November 2013.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.