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With history on the line for Woods, Torrey Pines the perfect stage

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SAN DIEGO – Torrey Pines was always going to be the perfect place for Tiger Woods to make history.

It was at the “Williams,” as the SoCal stop was once known, where Woods’ father, Earl, first introduced his prodigy son to the game’s highest level; and where Tiger enjoyed his first brushes with the greatness to come at the Junior World Championship.

“I also won a Junior World here, too,” Woods quickly offered earlier this week when asked about his professional success at Torrey Pines (eight victories, including a major).

In Woods' quest for his 83rd PGA Tour victory, the South Course was always on the short list of historically apropos venues.

No. 83, which will push Woods one tilt clear of the record set by Sam Snead in 1965, will be a milestone victory on the perfect stage, but in the water-cooler world of mindless debates, it wouldn’t even be Tiger’s greatest accomplishment at Torrey Pines. That would be his one-legged masterpiece at the 2008 U.S. Open.

Like Bay Hill and Firestone, Woods’ story has been etched into the fairways of Torrey Pines.

He won his eighth Tour title on the South Course in 1999, which was the first of his three come-from-behind victories at Torrey Pines. He would add victory Nos. 35 (2003 Buick Invitational), 41 (’05 Buick), 47 (’06 Buick), 55 (’07 Buick), 62 (’08 Buick), 65 (’08 U.S. Open) and 75 (’13 Farmers Insurance Open) on the cliffside gem.

They were all special for different reasons, particularly the career-defining ’08 Open, but this week’s event has the potential to be historic.

When Woods tied Snead last fall in Japan, there was a rare moment of reflection and appreciation, but he didn’t set out to equal Slammin’ Sammy or Jack Nicklaus, whose mark of 18 major championships is also back in Woods' sights following last year’s victory, major No. 15, at the Masters. Tiger has no plans to spend his remaining competitive years sharing records, and his play this week to begin his 24th year on Tour has been a testament to the urgency of now.

A half-dozen shots off the lead at the turn following Friday’s round, Woods began a familiar climb with a front-nine 32 Saturday to move within two strokes of the lead. Eight times in his career on Tour he’s won after trailing by six or more shots after 36 holes, and three of those comebacks (1999, ’06, ’07) came at Torrey Pines.

Woods’ momentum stalled on his closing loop and he finished with 3-under 69 for a share of 14th place, five strokes off the lead held by Jon Rahm. Given Woods' history at Torrey Pines, a five-stroke deficit hardly seems insurmountable, but it’s not the size of the lead so much as it is the ensemble of would-be contenders that will make Sunday something well shy of a coronation.

Rahm won the Farmers Insurance Open in 2017 and was flawless on Day 3 with a hole-out for eagle at the second and five birdies on his way to a 65. Three strokes back is Rory McIlroy, who rebounded from a second-round 73 with a 5-under card Saturday, followed by Tony Finau (T-5) and Patrick Reed (T-7). All total, 12 players stand between Woods and the history books.

“By the end of the day there'll probably be 10, 11, 12 guys ahead of me,” Woods correctly predicted. “I still got to go out there and post a low one tomorrow, still got to make a bunch of birdies tomorrow and move up that board.”

Asked about Sunday’s magic number, Woods stopped just short of becoming a prisoner of the moment, instead acknowledging how much it meant to him to tie Snead.

“I'll just say what 82 means: Consistency over a long period of time,” he said. “You're not going to win them all, and I've put myself there in the position to win a lot of events. I've lost my share of events, but in order to win them, you've got to be there a lot. Over the course of 20-plus years out here, I've been pretty consistent.”

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And that’s really what this milestone is about. With respect to Snead, he simply didn’t face the level of competition that Woods has over his career, and there are plenty of curious footnotes in Slammin’ Sammy’s record (we’re talking to you Miami-Biltmore Four-Ball).

What No. 83 means is that for two decades Woods has produced an almost nonstop parade of career years.

“It's relentless winning that much,” McIlroy said. “A really good season these days is three or four wins a year and he was doubling that year on year on year on year.”

From a clean bill of health – at least relative to where he’s been in the past – and a three-quarter driver swing has emerged a consistency that had been missing from Woods’ game. At his current clip and form, victory No. 83 feels very much like a foregone conclusion, and if that’s the case, Torrey Pines is as good a stage as any for Tiger to make history.