ST. LOUIS — For the second consecutive major championship, Tiger Woods finds himself in contention heading to the final round.
But it was difficult afterward to not wonder if Woods left a few opportunities on the Bellerive Country Club course Saturday afternoon that would have made the task a tad easier during the final round of the PGA Championship.
After birdieing five of his first eight holes and playing the front side in 31 strokes, Woods stalled on the back nine, failing to convert any birdie opportunities and squandering a beautiful chance at the par-5 17th, where he three-putted for par. He settled for his second consecutive 4-under-par 66 to finish at 202, 8 under par.
Woods first had to complete 11 holes of the second round early Saturday morning, also finishing with a 66.
“I thought I played really clean cards, really clean rounds,” said Woods, who made eight birdies and three bogeys over the course of the two rounds. “And I just wish I could have got myself a couple more shots closer to the lead, especially with the way 17 is playing, moving the tee way up like that. And 18 is playing pretty short as well.”
Woods failed to convert on both, despite having given himself excellent chances. In fact, after draining a 10-footer for par to keep his front-nine momentum intact, Woods had birdie putts of 20, 16, 14, 8 and 20 feet at the 11th through 15th holes, a 20-footer for eagle at the 17th and a 14-footer for birdie at the 18th — and made none of them.
At the 17th, after ramming his eagle putt through the break, he missed the 4-footer coming back.
“I left pretty much every single putt short on the back nine,” he said. “The greens were getting fuzzy, they’re getting slow, and I didn’t hit the putts quite hard enough. And I made sure on 17 I did. And I blew it by 4 feet and then pulled the next one.”
Woods didn’t discount the fact that the long day might have had an impact. He said there have been no physical issues since the week began with him taking ice baths to combat swelling.
But it is the first time in 14 tournaments this year that Woods has faced more than 18 holes in one day due to a weather delay.
“I’m tired. I am definitely tired,” Woods said. “Twenty-nine holes, it’s not necessarily the physical, it’s this mentally grinding that hard for 29 holes in this heat. It was a long day.”
And it started early, 7 a.m. local time. Woods resumed on the eighth hole, where he had a wedge shot from 70 yards that he knocked close for a birdie. But he missed 5-footers for par at the 10th and 12th holes surrounding a birdie at the 11th. He added a two-putt birdie at the 17th and ended the second round in a tie for 19th place, six shots behind Woodland.
Then he began the third round with consecutive birdies and an already boisterous gallery at Bellerive became even more engaged.
“It was awesome,” said Stewart Cink, who also shot 66. “Being in Tiger’s group is always exciting. Players try to downplay it, and I’ve downplayed it over the years myself because you’re trying to downplay it yourself a little bit, but it’s a pretty intense environment out there. It’s fun.
“You’ve got to decide what you want to do with it before you get out there, and it was a lot of fun. Hearing the crowd, and Tiger’s performing great. It was like turning back the hands of the clock.”
But Woods could turn it only so far. After his third straight birdie, at the eighth hole, that was it. He finished with 10 consecutive pars.
Still, it is the first time since the 2005 Masters that Woods has shot consecutive rounds of 66 or better in a major championship.
And the round was solid, perhaps something to build on. Woods hit 10 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens. But he needed 18 putts on the back nine for a total of 30, and the difference between being closer to the lead.
Three weeks ago, Woods trailed the leaders by four strokes heading into the final round at Carnoustie, and found himself atop the leaderboard with eight holes to go before finishing in a tie for sixth.
There, he needed some help from the leaders to make it interesting, and the same might be required here. But there’s no question what Woods will need to do.
“Another low round,” Woods said. “The golf course is playing soft, it’s gettable, you have to make birdies. Look at that front nine. Seemed like everybody was between 2 and 4 or 5 under par. That’s just the nature of the way it’s playing right now. It’s soft, it’s plugging, we’re able to hold 4-irons, 5-irons, whatever we want, at the flags. Because of that, you got to make birdies.”