DUBLIN, Ohio – Well, I’ve got some good news for you, Tiger Nation, and I’ve got some bad news for you. It’s your choice which you’d like to hear first.
What’s that? Always start with the bad news? OK, the bad news is that Tiger Woods looked extraordinarily ordinary on Saturday. Don’t get me wrong. Ordinary isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that it’s becoming a recurring theme for a guy who used to leave ordinary on the driving range.
Check that: He was actually a bit better than ordinary – or at least better than average. Woods posted a 1-over 73 that dropped him from a share of second place before the round to solo fourth when it was over, but on a blustery afternoon at Muirfield Village Golf Club, with Mother Nature once again baring her teeth at Jack’s place, it still exceeded the field stroke average of 74.32.
Even so, for someone who used to turn Moving Day into his own personal holiday, Tiger’s inability to go predictably low as of late on Saturdays should be cause for alarm. He’s now failed to break 71 in his last four third rounds, his scoring average of 72.00 the very definition of ordinary, independent of conditions.
On this particular Saturday, he continued his sublime ball-striking performance this week, finding 10 of 14 fairways and 13 greens in regulation. It was the putter that let him down on this occasion, as he took 32 putts for the day, including five misses from inside 10 feet.
Such stories have become a recurring theme for Woods, whose play often conjures images of a real-life Whack-A-Mole carnival game. Every time one of those undesirable little moles rears its ugly head, Woods is forced to whack it back down into the hole, only to see another spring up, ready to pounce. It’s just that in Tiger’s case, the moles represent things like driving accuracy and distance control and, yes, even putting.
“I had a difficult time adjusting to the pace today,” said Woods, who opened his round by making a 21-foot putt from off the green on the first hole, then didn’t make anything longer than 4 feet the rest of the round. “I know they're faster than what they were yesterday. But they just didn't look that fast and I ran a couple putts by, also left a few short. And also I was trying to stay steady in this wind, which is a task in itself, too. I did the best I could today.”
I know what you’re thinking. And yes, there really is some good news to this story. Actually, for those reading this while cozily lounging in Tiger Woods pajamas, it’s great news.
He still has an excellent chance of winning this tournament.
After posting a Saturday round that he called “the highest score I could have shot,” Woods will find himself in the penultimate pairing on Sunday, just four strokes off the lead at a venue where furious leaderboard shifting is commonplace.
It’s certainly not a bad position from which to attack. Those in front of him include leader Spencer Levin, most widely known for blowing a six-stroke 54-hole lead in Phoenix earlier this year; second-place Rory Sabbatini, who entering this week had missed more cuts than he’d made; and third-place Rickie Fowler, who breaks the trend of potential optimism by serving as this week’s unofficial Hottest Golfer on the Planet with top-five finishes in each of his last three starts.
It is commonly known that Woods has never won any of his 14 major championship titles when coming from behind entering the final round, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t proficient at the task. Of his 68 career PGA Tour stroke-play victories, 20 have come when faced with that situation, including two of his four wins here at the Memorial.
“The winning score may not change from what it's at right now, or it may go higher, may go lower,” Woods mused. “We don't know. That's the hard part about this golf course is there's so many demanding holes that anything can happen.”
What we do know is that Tiger has always owned a flair for the dramatic. With the odometer currently at 72 wins – good for third place all time – his next would tie Jack Nicklaus, which is significant not only for the historic value itself, but because he could reach the mark at the tournament hosted by his hero, the man whose poster adorned his bedroom wall as a child.
If Woods is to claim his 73rd triumph on Sunday, he will ostensibly need to defeat that Whack-A-Mole game, beating down any major issues with any major components of his game.
The bad news is that he once again was forced to play that game in the third round, a balky putting stroke repeatedly popping up to make itself known. The good news is that he’s still very much in contention to win this event with 18 holes left to play.
Going into the final round, the good should outweigh the bad for Tiger Nation. It means there’s still a chance for a 73rd celebratory Sunday.