Tiger Woods transformed into No. 1-player-in-the-world mode on Saturday, charging up the leaderboard at the Honda Classic and into the top 10. It's not likely that Woods stays there, and he's still six shots back of Rory McIlroy, but after two mediocre frustrating rounds, the 5-under round of 65 and 56-spot jump up the leaderboard have to be encouraging for Mr. Tiger.
Woods stated that he wanted to post a number in the mid-60s and get to 4 or 5-under, and he did just that with some more impressive work around the greens. Aside from a short blip after 18 holes in Dubai, Tiger had not really sniffed the top 10 of a leaderboard this season through nine competitive rounds. He made the cut at Honda right on the number, finally posting a round in the 60s (albeit 69) to get to even-par and make it to the weekend. Woods could never really put it all together -- struggling off the tee, with his irons on approach, or with the putter at different times other parts of the game were actually working. It was his short game around the green that saved him repeatedly on Friday afternoon, and got him through to the final 36 holes.
Saturday's round wasn't "putting it all together" either, but it was that vintage Tiger round where he turned some unexceptional ball-striking into a mid-60s round. He still struggled to hit fairways off the tee, and his irons were spotty, hitting just over half his greens in regulation. But the short game, both chipping and putting, boosted him yet again. It started on the fifth hole, when he rolled in a birdie bomb up and over an undulation in the center of the green.
Woods discussed how the greens had been running slow earlier in the week, and that he had difficulty with the Bermuda grain. And we heard again with that common "slow greens" gripe that the best way to "Tiger-proof" a course is to let them run a little slower, but he had no such trouble adjusting with the putter on Saturday. That one from 37 feet at No. 5 gave him the confidence early and he would keep that stroke going on the back side.
The second nine was his best stretch of the season, as he hit some improved approach shots but still used the ace work with the wedges and putter to post the inward 31. On Friday, we saw Woods chip in from the fringe at No. 13 for his final birdie of the day, the one that would clinch his making the cut. On Saturday, he repeated some of that chipping magic by sinking one from the fringe at No. 11 (via PGATour.com):
That was just the second of his four back-nine birdies as the putter and short game moved him into the top 10. Going out in just the second group of the day, Tiger and playing partner Luke Guthrie both went low with the wind relatively down at PGA National. The wind at this Palm Beach track plays a larger factor than most weeks on Tour, and indications were that it was picking up as the day progressed. So we may not see the leaders run away if the conditions do worsen and the course plays harder than it did for Tiger during his AM tour.
It wasn't flawless, and there were a couple bogey blips on the front side, but Tiger's run coming into the house is a definitive pivot from the mediocrity we'd seen all season. Here's his card from the third round (via PGATour.com):
Woods is unrelenting, and no one else on the planet could probably post that 65 number with the continued ball-striking struggles he had on Saturday, particularly early in the round. He'll obviously still think he's right in it, but with the leaders still a couple hours from teeing off, he'll likely drop out of the top 10 and Rory could increase his margin from an already sizable six shots.
Whether he's in contention six hours from now or not, Saturday's round is a welcome sight for fans waiting for Woods to show up this year.
UPDATE: With the full field through 54 holes and finishing some five hours after Tiger's early AM round, Woods settled one shot back of the top 10, currently seven shots back of leader Rory McIlroy.