ATLANTA – Tiger Woods won the 2007 Tour Championship, the circuit’s first experiment with playoffs and convoluted points, so it seems only fitting that he finds himself back in the hunt at what will be the final Projection Open.
With a second-round 68 that felt more like a 73, Woods remained tied for the lead at East Lake alongside Justin Rose at 7 under par. It’s his first 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour since the 2015 Wyndham Championship and the first time this season he begins the weekend without a healthy amount of real estate between himself and the top of the leaderboard.
“Best way to describe it is I ground out a round today,” Woods said. “I wasn't quite as sharp as I was yesterday, but hung in there and tried to miss the ball on the correct sides so I had angles. For the most part I did that.”
In truth, it felt more like a Houdini escape.
For his first 11 holes Woods had the look of a man searching for answers, missing five of his first eight fairways and just a single birdie to show for all his hard work.
“I was pretty hot,” said Woods of his three-putt bogey at the ninth hole. “I had been putting so beautifully yesterday and today and just hit a bad pull there. I tried to make sure I was focused enough on that back nine to shoot something under par, and get back after it again.”
Woods moved back into the lead with birdies at Nos. 12, 14 and 15 and for a brief moment even found himself first in the projected FedExCup standings before he made a mess of the 16th hole on his way to a double bogey-6.
The difference on Friday was that he didn’t let this title chance slip away like he’s done so many times this season, closing his round with a birdie that produced a defiant smile. The man who has rewritten the record books with petulant play did it again.
“He's done it his whole career. It's nothing new,” said Rory McIlroy, who also endured a rollercoaster round for a 68 and was two strokes behind the leaders at 5 under par.
Although it seems counterintuitive, compared to Thursday’s opening 65 that was a ball-striking showcase, his Day 2 performance seemed to inspire Woods. It takes an all-world game to accomplish the things he has in his career, but it takes grit to make those signature moments possible, and Friday in steamy Atlanta was one of those days.
“Rounds like today are hard, and they're hard mentally because you have to grind it out. You're not quite as sharp,” he said. “It's easy to shoot low scores when you're sharp. It's a little bit more difficult to post a low number when I'm off. I was able to do that today, kept myself in the tournament.”
He also set up an intriguing match-up on Saturday when he will set out in the anchor match alongside Rose, the second-ranked player on the postseason points list and the newly minted world No. 1.
Although the Englishman has been paired with Woods plenty of times, they’ve gone head-to-head in contention only twice, in 2007 when Tiger closed with a 63 to win the BMW Championship and on Day 3 at the ’13 Barclays when Tiger edged Rose by a stroke.
“It's a cool story for sure. Yeah, that is cool for sure,” Rose said when asked about the pairing. “I can't really think that way. He's obviously right on form and feeling very comfortable out there, looks like he's driving it well, irons have been great all year, looks comfortable with the blade [putter].”
But if his game and his ability to turn lemons into lemonade has a familiar feel, being in the lead at halftime is oddly new for Woods. At The Open, where he finished tied for sixth place, he was a half dozen strokes off the pace through two rounds; and he was also six back after 36 holes at last month’s PGA Championship before finishing runner-up.
For Woods, having the Friday night lead is akin to winning the lottery, not that he seemed to have much interest in getting ahead of himself with a long and hot weekend looming.
“I need to get there first, and that's my responsibility to get there,” said Woods when asked what winning his 80th Tour title would mean. “I've got 36 more holes to go, and hopefully I'll be answering that question come Sunday night.”
It’s no surprise that he would deflect on this front. He’s spent the better part of two decades with the competitive blinders firmly affixed, but it’s impossible for those who have spent this year eagerly awaiting his return to the winner’s circle not to let the mind wander.
Next year the Tour will transition to a new strokes-based format for the Tour Championship, with the winner at East Lake claiming the season-long trophy regardless of where they are on the points list. It would only be apropos that Woods, the guy who made projections interesting, would bookend the points era with a victory that would create so much clarity.