Not even one bad hole could keep Tiger Woods from a share of the 36-hole lead for the first time in more than three years.
Woods hit his stride Friday on the back nine at East Lake with three birdies and an eight-foot par save over four straight holes, giving him a two-shot lead as he started to build some separation against a 30-man field at the Tour Championship.
One tee shot brought him back.
He went from the deep rough left of the 16th fairway to a plugged lie in a bunker that left him no choice but play away from the green, and he missed a 12-foot putt to take double-bogey. A two-putt birdie on the final hole gave him a two-under 68 and a tie with Justin Rose.
Woods considers it a victory to have made it to the Tour Championship coming off a fourth back surgery. He’s not ready to think about the prospect of ending his remarkable comeback season with his 80th PGA Tour victory.
‘We have a long way to go,’ Woods said. ‘This is not an easy golf course.’
Rose, in his debut at No 1 in the world, played in the group ahead of Woods and could hear all about it with an enormous gallery right behind him. He birdied three of his last six holes to offset a bogey for a 67. They were at seven-under 133.
Rory McIlroy made enough birdies to offset his mistakes in a round of 68. He was two shots behind.
Woods last shared the 36-hole lead at the Wyndham Championship in 2015. He wound up in a tie for 10th, and then was gone from the PGA Tour for the next 17 months while he recovered from two back surgeries.
One more back surgery followed that brief return in 2017, and it’s been a slow road back.
In the FedExCup finale, however, Woods is picking up momentum. He opened with a 62 at Aronimink two weeks ago on a rain-softened course and stayed within five shots of the lead the rest of the way until he tied for sixth.
Now his name has been atop the leaderboard for consecutive rounds, and it’s not an accident.
East Lake, with its shaggy Bermuda rough and dry, fast conditions, requires nothing short of precision. Woods wasn’t nearly as sharp as he was Thursday when he started with a 65, but he missed in the right spots. Despite hitting only two fairways through 11 holes, he wasn’t losing much ground.
‘This course, the way it’s playing right now, you’ve got to be so patient,’ Woods said. ‘It’s hard to make birdies, and on top of that, it’s hard to get the ball close. It’s very easy to make mistakes, make a few bogeys here and there. And look at most of the field. That’s basically what they’re doing.’
Jon Rahm and Rickie Fowler also had at least a share of the lead at some point, only to lose ground. It was a slow bleed for Fowler, who went birdie-free over his last 12 holes and shot 39 on the back nine for a 72. It was a sudden drop for Rahm, who took bogey from the rough on the 14th hole and then put his tee shot into the water on the par-three 15th for a double-bogey and a 68.
Rahm was three behind at 136, along with Billy Horschel and Patrick Cantlay, each with a tournament-best 65, and Justin Thomas, the defending FedExCup champion who hit tee shots all over East Lake and somehow managed a 69.
‘We don’t play very many places like this where if you have control of your ball, if you have control of your game, you’re probably going to have a good chance to win,’ Thomas said.
Fowler was four shots back.
Woods surged into the lead starting with a wedge to four feet on the 12th, an eight-foot par save on the 13th, an 18-foot birdie on the 14th and a tee shot that flirted with the edge of the peninsula green on the par-three 15th. Woods poured that one in from 25 feet, and the roar resonated across East Lake.
And then he was in deep trouble, his ball nestled down on the 454-yard 16th hole. He thought he could gouge it out of the rough and over the tree to just short of the green, but he misjudged the lie. It came up short into a bunker some 50 yards short of the green, plugged so badly in the side that he couldn’t do anything but blast out slightly behind him. A flip wedge to 12 feet and two putts later, he was tied with Rose.
‘I probably should have just pitched out, and the worst I would make is five,’ Woods said. ‘And with my wedge game right now, a pretty high percentage I would have got that up-and-down. But I thought I could sneak it up there and get up on the upslope and have a good angle in there, and it just didn’t work out.’
Rose is coming off a playoff loss at the BMW Championship last week, and as the No 2 seed in the FedExCup is in the best spot to capture the $10-million prize. Bryson DeChambeau, the No 1 seed, shot 75 and was 13 shots behind.
Tony Finau and Dustin Johnson, the other top-five seeds who only have to win to claim the FedExCup, have ground to make up on the weekend. Finau made three bogeys on the back nine for a 71, ending his streak of 16 consecutive rounds in the sixties. He was five shots behind. Johnson rallied for a 70 and was six behind.