PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Many of the top young players who have been toting the load on the PGA Tour grew up inspired by, and aspiring to be, Tiger Woods. Now that he is competing again after four back surgeries, they don’t wish to see an old, broken-down fighter whose best punches are in the past. They want his best.
Early Saturday at the Players Championship at T.P.C. Sawgrass, golf’s younger generation got an inkling of what competitors going against Woods experienced a decade or so ago. Woods shot seven-under 65 and knew it could have been better. But he appeared satisfied to have finally pulled together all the elements of his game.
Starting the third round 14 shots behind the leader, Webb Simpson, and teeing off nearly six hours behind him, Woods wasn’t exactly competing inside a bubbling caldron of pressure. Nonetheless, on a course upon which he’d never scored better than 66 (2001), he generated giant buzz across the rolling hills, stirring the early-morning crowd with eight birdies over his first 12 holes.
He showed precision off the tee, and hit a few majestic long irons (such as his 3-iron into the par-5 11th, which he termed “a high, towering bomb.”) And finally, yes, finally, he coaxed a few putts to fall.
Playing alongside him for the first time was the 27-year-old Canadian Mackenzie Hughes, who stared at his phone Friday night hoping to see a text that he would be paired with Woods. Hughes has made only four cuts in 17 starts in 2017-18, failing to post a top-50 finish, but he was amped to show up on Saturday. Woods didn’t disappoint him.
“I’ve had a pretty poor year, and to be in an environment like that, it really gets the juices flowing,” Hughes said after shooting 68. “It’s 90 degrees, but I can assure you I had some goose bumps and shivers at times out there. You hear some of the roars and you realize, ‘Hey, I’m playing with Tiger Woods.’ ”
As Woods stood over a 14-foot putt at the par-3 13th hole to get to nine under for his round, and 10 under for the tournament — at the time, joint second place — fans crammed 10 and 12 deep atop the green-side mounding just to steal a glimpse. Would this be the day the tournament record of 63, equaled by Simpson on Friday, would fall?
Woods missed the putt, made bogey after missing the green at the difficult 14th and failed to birdie the par-5 16th after having only 225 yards into the green for his second shot.
Jordan Spieth, another player who barely made the cut, also posted 65 a few groups ahead. For Woods, there was a tinge of what might have been, but the realist in him knew that shooting 65 on one of the Tour’s most demanding layouts was another sign of progress.
“Well, I finally got off to a good start,” said Woods, who hit 11 of 14 fairways, 16 of 18 greens and had 27 putts. “I birdied the first couple of holes, and I just kept it rolling from there. I hit a lot of good shots today. It was nice to see a few putts go in. I hit a lot of, over all, the whole day, a lot of quality shots, and 65 was probably as high as I could have shot today, which was kind of nice.”
Having started the day tied for 68th, Woods’s eight-under 208 moved him inside the top 10 by early afternoon. With only a gentle breeze tossing and a golf course offering up birdies, he predicted he would not start that high on Sunday. Still, asked if Saturday’s 65 was a steppingstone, Woods affirmed that it was.
“I got my playing feels back, and it’s just a matter of playing and executing and putting the shots together,” he said. “It was nice. I made some putts today. That was basically the difference.”