(Reuters) – Tiger Woods stood on the brink of his first victory for more than five years after opening a three-shot lead over Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy in the third round of the Tour Championship in Atlanta on Saturday.
Woods exuded a sense of calm as he contemplated his chances of what given his 42 years and surgical history would be perhaps his greatest triumph, at least outside of his 14 major titles.
And he had every reason to fancy his chances given his history as a front-runner of the highest order.
He has enjoyed the sole lead 44 times entering the final round, and has converted all but twice. And he has never coughed up a lead of three shots or more.
“Simple math says that if I play a clean card the guys behind me have to shoot 67, so that helps,” Woods told reporters after a five-under-par 65 at East Lake.
“I don’t have to shoot 63 or 64 and hope I get help. That’s a big difference. This is a spot I’d much rather be in than four or five back.
“I feel good about it. I’ve been playing well throughout the entire summer, just piecing it together, building, building and building.
“Finally I’ve come to a point where I’ve got control of the lead.”
A victory on Sunday would be his 80th on tour — two short of Sam Snead’s record — and his first since the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August, 2013.
Woods has not been the closer of old in his return this year from a spinal fusion, most notably at the British Open at Carnoustie where he charged into the lead halfway through the final round before faltering.
But he said he had felt comfortable on that occasion, even if he did not hoist the Claret Jug.
“When I grabbed the lead at the Open Championship (it) didn’t really feel abnormal, even though it’s been years since I’ve been in those spots,” he said.
“Today was the same. I got off to just an ideal start … and the next thing you know I’m off and running.”
Indeed he was, a blistering start reminiscent of his halcyon days as he notched six birdies in the first seven holes after starting the day tied for the halfway lead with world number one Rose.
“I felt hot early for sure,” Woods said. “I was hitting it absolutely dead flush, the putts I was hitting were going in and from there I just tried to hang in there.”
He cooled off on the back nine en route to a 12-under 198 total, while Englishman Rose recovered from a bogey, bogey start to card a 68.
Woods led by five strokes late on, but showed a hint of fragility by fluffing a pitch shot at the par-four 16th, where he failed to carry his ball up the slope.
But with a double-bogey looming, he regrouped to hit his next delicate shot stone dead for a tap-in bogey, before Rose sank an eight-foot birdie to cut the gap to three.
McIlroy, meanwhile, birdied the 16th and 18th holes to join the fray, setting up the prospect of a Sunday to remember.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Ed Osmond/Nick Mulvenney)