There is Rory McIlroy in Europe, and then there is Tiger Woods in Los Angeles. And then there is Woods shooting in the 60s on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Riviera Country Club in his native Southern California after making his first cut in 274 days.
Woods’ playing partner on day three at the Genesis Invitational, Matthias Schwab, summed it up best.
“This was pretty extreme,” the 28-year-old Austrian said of the enormous Los Angeles crowds who watched Woods shoot a four-under 67 to beat Schwab by three strokes and his other playing partner, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, by four. “I’ve played with Rory in Europe a few times and it was good crowds there, too. This was another level.”
Another level, indeed. Woods finished day three at three-under par, 12 shots back of 54-hole leader Jon Rahm. Woods playing weekend golf was a big enough lure that even a tour pro who’d missed the cut decided to walk inside the ropes for the entire round. That was Korea’s Yeong Su Kim, who earned an invitation for winning the Genesis Championship in his homeland last year.
Woods’ 67 was his best round on the PGA Tour since the second round of the Zozo Championship in Las Vegas in 2020. This week, Woods was making his return to competition after a seven-month injury hiatus that started after a missed cut at the Open Championship at St Andrews last July. Woods spent that time recovering from plantar fasciitis and an ankle injury stemming from his single-car accident in February 2021.
He has not played weekend golf since the Saturday of last year’s PGA Championship, when he made the cut at Southern Hills only to withdraw from injury before the final round.
He showed few signs of rust on Saturday, though. His 67 equalled the third best round on day three at Riviera, only bettered by Rahm’s 65 and Denny McCarthy’s 64. Rahm leads 2021 Genesis champion Max Homa (69), who sits at 12-under, while Keith Mitchell (69) is at 11-under.
“Well, the golf part I can do,” Woods said modestly. “It’s just a matter of whether I can get from point A to point B. That’s been the struggle part of it.”
Highlights of Woods’ round included birdies at the short 10th, his opening hole, and the par-3 14th where he drained a 25-footer from off the green. But the front nine (Woods’ back nine), the 15-time Major winner showed glimpses of his brilliant best. On the par-5 first, Woods was 191 yards out for his second shot and carved in a flighted approach from left to right that settled to a tap-in eagle putt.
A roar nobody would've been ready for 😵
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At the par-5 fifth, a clever approach to 11 feet set up his third and final birdie of the day. Woods’ only bogey of the day came from a poor approach from 143 yards and a putt up the slope that had far too much pace.
Woods’ 67 was also the best score among the 12 rounds he’s played since the 2022 Masters, which was his first tournament in 17 months after severely injuring his right leg in that 2021 car accident.
“[Today] was the best I’ve played [since the 2022 return],” Woods said. Promising for Woods fans is that despite the ankle injury, he is driving the ball long and straight, freeing up the rest of his game. He has averaged 303 yards for week, ranking 12th in the elite field, and he hit nine of 14 fairways on Saturday.
“[Bezuidenhout] and I were talking about it. He outdrove us on almost every hole, which was a little bit surprising,” Schwab said of the third player in their group.
Woods put that down to a stronger core supplementing his weaker leg.
“My core is so much stronger than it was [in April last year]. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve got the speed that I have. I can’t use the ground, so I have to use my core.”
But the accuracy? That’s coming from a low fade Woods says he can rely on.
“I’ve been pretty one dimensional on how to hit my tee shots. I’ve gone to my stock shot, a flat cut,” he said. “It can go a very long way here, it’s so firm and fast, so I’ve been able to hit that shot. Then with the firm greens, I thoroughly enjoy that for my iron game, and finally made some putts.”
There were 27 putts for Woods on moving day, and he ranked 16th in the field for strokes gained: putting. This came after a Friday night adjustment to his putting that paid off. “I went back to releasing the putter blade more, more right hand, more release,” Woods said.
Woods wrapped up his news conference Saturday night by refraining from revealing more about his schedule in the lead up to the Masters in April. Even he doesn’t know if he’ll play another tournament before Augusta.
“I don’t know about that. Right now I’ve got to recover for tomorrow [the final round],” he said. “I’m a little bit on the sore side, so let’s just recover, figure out tomorrow and hopefully shoot a low one. [After] this event, we’ll go ahead and reassess everything and see where we are, see how I recover from a full tournament. The last time I did it was at The Open Championship, so it’s been a while.”
Indeed, it has. But you would not know it from Saturday’s round.