Early-morning weekend rounds on the PGA Tour can be tranquil, sleepy affairs, as everyone waits for the leaders to tee off in the midafternoon. The morning competitors are tournament extras. Dewsweepers.
T.P.C. Sawgrass on Saturday was different, jolted to life with a scene that many have waited impatiently to see: Tiger Woods was on the prowl again.
Fans casually settling in at the Players Championship for the main attractions were pulled into an unexpected drama. They dashed to the back nine to witness Woods, the game’s hobbled giant, on the most promising day of his comeback from four back operations.
Woods, 42, was long and precise off the tee. He hit towering, soft-landing iron shots, and finally — yes, finally — was able to coax a few putts to fall.
Through his first 12 holes, he made eight birdies, and for a second consecutive day, the tournament record of 63, equaled by Webb Simpson 24 hours before, was endangered. Woods did not finish the way he wanted, making a bogey at the difficult par-4 14th and missing birdie putts on Nos. 13 and 16 — the kind that, in his prime, he always seemed to bury.
Still, his seven-under-par 65 lifted him 59 spots, all the way into a tie for ninth. He will play Sunday’s final round in a pairing that the galleries and television executives should love — with Jordan Spieth, who matched Woods for Saturday’s low round.
A year removed from his latest spinal operation, and making only his eighth PGA Tour start of the year, Woods delivered easily the best round anyone has seen from him in a long time.
Beginning the day 14 shots off the lead, Woods was not exactly competing in a bubbling cauldron of pressure. But on a course that presents an arduous test, Woods had answers. He was on.
“Well, I finally got off to a good start,” said Woods, who started birdie-birdie, hit 11 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens, and had 27 putts. “I birdied the first couple of holes, and I just kept it rolling from there. I hit a lot of good shots today. It was nice to see a few putts go in. I hit a lot of, over all, the whole day, a lot of quality shots, and 65 was probably as high as I could have shot today, which was kind of nice.”
Many of the top young players who have been toting the load on the PGA Tour in his absence grew up inspired by, and aspiring to be, Woods. Now that he is back, they want him at his best. Competing alongside Woods on Saturday was Mackenzie Hughes, 27, who had never met him before.
Hughes has struggled this season, making only four cuts in 17 starts, but he was thrilled about Saturday’s pairing. He had stared at his phone on Friday night hoping to see a text that he would be paired with Woods.
The experience did not disappoint him.
“I’ve had a pretty poor year, and to be in an environment like that, it really gets the juices flowing,” said Hughes, who shot 68. “It’s 90 degrees, but I can assure you I had some goose bumps and shivers at times out there. You hear some of the roars and you realize, ‘Hey, I’m playing with Tiger Woods.’”