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Even Brandel Chamblee can only praise Tiger Woods’ Masters revival

Brandel Chamblee has not always been a member of the Tiger Woods fan club, but as the former world No. 1 made his way up the leaderboard in the third round of the Masters, the Golf Channel analyst gave him his due to what inconceivable just over a week ago.

Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

Tiger Woods must truly be back, since one of his toughest critics, Brandel Chamblee, could not praise him enough as the former world No. 1 moved up the leaderboard Saturday at Augusta.

"If there’s somebody who can get up on that leaderboard and affect everybody else, it’s certainly Tiger Woods," the Golf Channel analyst observed as the superstar was in the midst of three consecutive birdies to get to 5-under for the week and on to the front page of the Masters scoreboard.

Woods, to recap, returned to center stage on Thursday at the Masters after a two-month layoff to iron out kinks in a suddenly woeful short game. Nobody knew what to expect from Tiger, who, through three days of championship pressure, has displayed no signs of the chunks and skulls that forced him into hiding after a missed cut in Phoenix and an early withdrawal at Torrey Pines.

Chamblee, who has taken Tiger to task for a variety of sins over the years -- including his Sean Foley-influenced mechanical swing and 2013 rules lapses -- was among the most vociferous of doubters heading into Woods’ first competitive round since February. Indeed, he recently said Tiger’s "catastrophically bad" wedge play precluded a decent performance on golf’s biggest stage.

Fast forward not quite two weeks and Chamblee was whistling a far different tune on Saturday. Watching as Woods made his way to the par-4 fifth hole, the former PGA Tour player recounted a story he heard at Ben Crenshaw’s retirement party about how Tiger joined the two-time Masters champ and his young protege, Jordan Spieth, for a pre-tourney practice round starting on No. 10.

"Nobody there could believe how good Tiger Woods played the back nine with Jordan Spieth and Ben Crenshaw," said Chamblee, who noted that Woods "bombed it close" around the corner at 10, "perfect at 11, stuck it at 12, played 13 perfect, birdied 14, 15 perfect."

Tiger was so on that he reportedly bested Spieth, the record-breaking 54-hole leader who will enter Masters Sunday at 16-under and with a four-shot lead, by some four or five strokes. Woods "didn’t miss a shot," during the practice session, Chamblee reported.

Wishing he had access to that data before going on air Wednesday night, Chamblee was effusive in his acclaim for the 14-time major champion who was making noise Saturday but unlikely to claim that elusive 15th with Spieth firmly in control.

"To imagine where Tiger Woods went to with his short game from Waste Management [Phoenix Open] to here, I don’t think any of us could have taken that leap. It’s incredible and amazing to watch," Chamblee stated. "People have argued that, based on his 54-hole closure rate, that he might have the greatest mind in the history of the game, and that’s why I thought this week would be so compelling as it relates to Tiger Woods, because all of that attention, and that intellect directed at a problem that plagued so many and for him to fix that problem is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever seen in golf."

High commendation, indeed, especially when you consider, as Chamblee noted, that Woods’ revival was occurring "in a week where we have a 21-year-old who’s atop the leaderboard."

That 21-year-old surpassed a decades-long 54-hole scoring record that was set by another then-21-year-old when Spieth posted a three-day total of 16-under. Woods, of course, was that youngster back in 1997; he and Raymond Floyd (1976) had a good run.

But back to Woods, who, despite all the work he put in on his short game, was bound to have some hiccups. The mishits, though, were largely confined to his tee shots, like the way errant tee ball on the par-5 13th that elicited a mini-club toss and the traditional Masters f-bomb ...

... and that he casually converted for a fist-pumping birdie.

"I had a chance to make this a really special round today," he said after posting a 4-under 68. "I had it going there for a little bit and I made a stupidly good birdie at 13 and a stupidly bad bogey at 14. You know, it all evens out. If I had made a couple more putts the score realistically should have been probably 67 today."

As far as Jim Nantz was concerned, Woods acquitted himself quite admirably, saying during Saturday’s broadcast that Tiger "far [exceeded] virtually everyone’s expectations coming into the week.

"There were so many predictions out there, and so-called experts who thought he might never win again," CBS’ voice of the Masters intoned. "Well, I think he’s put that discussion to rest."

Thanks to his his efforts, Woods gets to trade his third-round playing partner, Sergio Garcia, for one a bit more to his liking. Tiger will pal around on Sunday with the current top-ranked player in the world, Rory McIlroy, who also came in at 68 and will start the day at 6-under -- respectable, but still 10 shots shy of the lead of Heir Jordan.