The game’s dominant force from 1997, when he won his first Masters title, to 2008 – when his third US Open triumph took his tally of majors to 14 – it is six years since one of the sport’s greatest exponents led the field at any of the four biggest tournaments.
That was in the second round of the US Open. But this was on the Saturday of The Open, and, although it was short-lived – with the later starters overhauling him within about 20 minutes – the news that the 42-year-old had resumed his once-familiar position had everyone sitting up.
“It would be better on Sunday. But I’m right there,” he said. “I’ve got a chance at this, which is great.”
Only a bogey at the 16th sullied his scorecard and had he sunk decent birdie opportunities at the 13th or 17th or managed to avoid a wayward tee-shot on 18, which forced him to dig deep for his par, then he could have prolonged his stay at the top. But a five-under par 66, his lowest score at this event since 2006 and his lowest round at any major since 2011, means he is well within striking distance as the championship heads into the final day.
“It’s been a few years since I’ve felt like this. I played pretty similar to this at the Players Championship, which is [considered] the fifth major, but not like this in one of these big four events.
“I didn’t know I was tied for the lead. I know I was within one. But I was right there. After I birdied 14, I still had some work to do. I was just concentrating on trying to play the last four holes under par. Not to try and let these guys get too far out of reach if they got to double digits.”
There had been early anticipation. Teeing off almost three hours before the overnight pacesetters, the atmosphere in the galleries, which were ten deep in places, was fervoured. It wasn’t quite the expectant hordes of his heyday but there were people clambering on top of wheelie bins for an improved vantage point, and as he holed out for par on the first the putt was hailed as though it was an eagle.
He fed off the crowd and, with birdies on the fourth and sixth, hope bloomed. Off-course controversies, personal issues and a raft of back problems have dogged him in the years since he last won a major and had threatened to quash any dreams of a 15th major victory but a run of three birdies in three holes at the turn fuelled belief, and another at the 14th elevated him to the top of the leaderboard, albeit as part of a six-way tie before he stuttered two holes later and others capitalised on chances.
That gap is by no means insurmountable, though, which Woods acknowledged while also refusing to get too carried away.
Asked where another major win would rank in his treasure trove of successes, the three-time Open champion, who spent most of his career focusing on the win, was coy about prematurely contemplating a reunion with the Claret Jug.
“We’re not there yet. I know what you are trying to say but let me try and get there first. Then ask me again.
“It certainly is possible. I’ve shown that I’ve been there close enough with a chance to win this year. Given what happened the last few years, I didn’t know if that would ever happen again, but here I am with a chance coming into a Sunday in a major championship. It’s going to be fun.”
It could also be challenging, with the wind expected to whip up and little between the top dozen or so players.
“We’ll find out what the lead is by day’s end. At least I know that I will be there with a chance. They won’t be too far out of reach. If they get to double digits, I’m still only five back. That’s certainly doable with the weather that hopefully comes in tomorrow. If it doesn’t come in and we get conditions like this, then we know we’re going to have to shoot between 6, 7, 8-under par tomorrow to have a chance.”
As it is, the leaders only had a four-shot cushion by the time play was concluded, meaning that although Woods wouldn’t discuss what another major win would mean, he will now be contemplating it. And he won’t be the only one.