This wasn’t the third round. This was a revival.
When Tiger’s 15-footer for birdie disappeared into the cup on 16, he reacted with a thunderous fist-pump. I was kneeling next to the Cypress tree guarding the left side of the green and even with the booming cheers, I was close enough to hear him cry out, “YEAH!” This wasn’t just any first-pump — it was the most robust we’d seen from him in 2010. In my eyes, it was more than just a celebratory gesture; it was Tiger, dressed in all white, saying, “I think I can win this.”
And just like that, the muted, tentative atmosphere I had felt when I first slid under the ropes behind the 14th green was instantaneously transformed into the electrifying, commanding aura reminiscent of the pre-scandal Tiger.
Even though Tiger’s charge had started much earlier in the day, the mood was curiously tense and precarious when I caught up with him on the 14th. The crowd surrounding the green was surprisingly sparse. He knocked his approach to about 10 feet and just missed his birdie attempt. With the multiple 7, 8 and 9s posted on the 14th this week, a tap-in par wasn’t the worst result. The dour expression on his face remained unchanged after two and a half days of putting struggles, taunts from the gallery and worst of all, the loud whispers of a potential Mickelslam.
With the 15th hole running parallel to a busy road clogged with noisy shuttle buses and service cars, Tiger was visibly irritated when the shrill beeping of a construction truck erupted at the start of his takeaway. He backed off to regroup. After hitting a three iron off the toe, he let the club drop from his hands before he finished his follow-through. Feeling a little shocked and bemused, I turned to Kevin Merfeld of the Monterey Herald who I was walking with and said, “Wow, I think the truck rattled him.”
When we left the media tent, we had intended to catch up with the leaders, but given I had stumbled across an inside the ropes badge for the day, I suggested we stop by to walk with Tiger (and Vijay, of course!) for a hole or two.
As Tiger stomped down the fairway, fans half-heartedly yelled, “Let’s go Tiger!” While they clapped and cheered, they were nothing like the reception Phil received on Friday nor did they have the usual exuberance. Instead, the cheers felt a little forced and it was almost awkward. It was my first time witnessing the weird post-scandal vibe and it was strange that for once the attention wasn’t solely centered on him.
Then 16 happened. He split the fairway with a 3-metal, followed by the signature twirl of the club through his hands. As he walked up the fairway, the “Go Tiger” cheers had a little more zest. But forget the smiles and nods to the fans that we saw at The Masters. It was all business. A mini roar erupted near the green as he knocked it stiff. As we walked briskly toward the green, where a horde of fans had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, Kevin said to me, “He has his game face on.”
I recognized that look. Something incredible was on the verge of happening. Call me crazy, but I could feel it. Maybe it was the club twirl on the tee. Maybe it was the extra pep in his stride. Maybe it was just that he was due. But before he stepped up to the putt, I knew he was going to make it.
Then came the first roar that echoed across Pebble Beach. Meanwhile, Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell were engaged in a battle on the other side of the course, one that I came out with the intention to watch. But I looked at Kevin and said, “We have to watch him hit into 17 now.”
The tee shot on 17 is one of my favorites to watch, anyway. The grandstands were packed and the fairway was quickly filling up. The crowd inside the ropes doubled, too. In my notebook, I scrawled, “Feel air of old Tiger, he’s pumped up.”
So were the fans. One yelled, “Come back like Torrey Pines!” And you know what? The circumstances were indeed oddly familiar. He was in the old Tiger zone. With the wind blustering, Tiger drilled a beautiful shot at the pin — which was in a less treacherous position than the previous two days. His ball landed on the front of the extra-firm green and stopped 12-feet on the fringe above the hole.
A flock of seagulls circled in the horizon while Tiger walked around the hole, examining the seemingly impossible putt. I held my breath as I kneeled next to the grandstands by the green. The right to left downhill putt broke seven feet and before it dropped for his second consecutive birdie, Tiger knew it was good, raising his arm calmly in the air with his index finger pointed up. It was like he was saying, finally, things are turning around and I’m going to win this damn tournament.
The roar from the crowd was probably the loudest I’d ever heard. Until the 18th hole.
As Tiger and Vijay waited on the tee for the group ahead to clear, Stevie walked over to the edge of the cliff to talk with the kayakers, who were presumably offering their own words of encouragement. He laughed and gave them a thumbs-up while Tiger stared ahead with his arms crossed.
There must have been at least 5,000-7,000 people lined down the fairway and surrounding the green. Marching up the fairway, I heard a fan say, “All I’m telling you is he’s human.” And another exclaim, “What a stud, dude.”
Tiger’s drive was behind the tree on the right side of the fairway. I did a double-take when I saw he was holding a 3-wood in his hands. Holy crap, is he going for it in two (18 is a par 5)? Does he even have a shot? Apparently so. And of course he’s not going to lay up. Because he’s Tiger Woods.
Right as he was taking the club back, a thud came from the gallery. Tiger stepped away and looked back at the gallery with an icy stare. Then he struck the shot of the day, starting the ball at the seawall and cutting it back toward the pin from 260 yards away. It stopped pin-high, 10-feet from the cup.
Unreal. A year ago, it would have been a fantastic shot, but we wouldn’t have expected anything less. On Saturday it was what we’d been hoping to see again for much too long. The booming cheers were so loud that a writer standing near the 10th hole, the farthest point away (he approximated about two miles), heard them. And another scribe said she could hear it in the media tent.
As Tiger approached the green, he doffed his cap to the adoring fans. He even smiled.
His eagle putt stopped just short, but he settled with a tap-in to birdie the final three holes to post 31 on the back nine for a five-under 66, tying the low score of the tournament Mickelson shot a day earlier. Just like that, he was in third place and back in contention.
Flocked by security guards in the scoring area behind the grandstands, Tiger was greeted by agent Mark Steinberg, along with a throng of reporters and TV cameras. As he walked from the TV interview area to the flash area, Steiney put his arm around Tiger like a proud parent. From the stands, fans looked on, fervently yelling, “Attaboy, Tiger!” and “Go Tiger!”
Tiger, who is one-under for the championship, still has decisive ground to make up to catch Dustin Johnson, who also shot 66, to get to six-under for a three stroke lead over Graeme McDowell. Meanwhile, what happened to Phil? He pulled a Phil.
And from where I was sitting, I witnessed the prowess of the pre-11/27 Tiger — it’s not quite the same, but it is what it is. In those three holes, it was a thrilling feeling — one that screamed: Holy crap, he’s back and I’m watching it happen from as close as you can get.
Everything is right in the universe. At least for a day.
So does this mark the resurgence of Tiger Woods? Is he really back? Ask me again on Sunday evening. Perhaps it was just a fortunate burst. But what struck me was how much electrified the crowd was and how much they wanted to believe he was back. As did I.
Tiger has always shown an incredible level of competence and perfection exceeding what was regarded to be normal. In the past seven months, all of it has either been shattered or questioned. Even his own confidence in himself has been dubious. But in those three holes, I believed. And more important, he believed.
[Photos by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images]