AUGUSTA, Ga. — Twenty-two years after Tiger Woods raised the curtain on golf’s version of the Broadway sensation “Cats,” he has set the stage for a spellbinding encore.
With a five-under-par 67 in the third round at Augusta National on Saturday, Woods positioned himself for his first major victory since 2008, on the same Augusta National stage where he stole the show in 1997 with a record-breaking 12-stroke victory in his first major as a professional.
Woods will enter the final round tied for second with Tony Finau, two strokes behind Francesco Molinari, who posted a 66 for a 54-hole total of 13-under 203.
In 1997, the 21-year-old Woods was a three-time United States Amateur champion who requested a winner’s green jacket that hung loosely on him because he expected to grow into it over the course of his career. Now 43, with 14 major titles and four back operations behind him, Woods is poised to do what no one — least of all, him — thought possible two years ago: continue to expand his legacy. With a victory, he would pull to three major titles behind Jack Nicklaus’s record 18.
Before the 2017 Masters, Woods flew in for the Champions Dinner and spent the evening in terrible physical discomfort. So great was the pain in Woods’s lower back, he told one of his fellow diners: “I’m done. I won’t play golf again.”
On the eve of this year’s tournament, Woods touched on that tough time in a speech after he accepted the Ben Hogan Award, presented to a player who has remained active in the game despite a physical handicap or serious injury or illness. He said he required a pain-relieving shot just to make it through the dinner two years ago, and traveled from Augusta National straight to the airport, for a flight to England to consult with a back specialist, who recommended back fusion surgery.
Woods traveled to Texas that same month for the operation, which he described it as “a last resort” after three less complex operations. His goal at the time, he said, was not to resume his winning ways in golf but to regain a quality of life that allowed him to play with his two children and engage in daily activities with minimal physical distress.
Before Woods returned last year for his first competitive start at Augusta National since 2015, he described himself as “a walking miracle.” Woods tied for 32nd last year, a performance that he used as a launching pad to contend at the British Open, where he tied for sixth, and the P.G.A. Championship, where he finished second. Last September, Woods won his first P.G.A. Tour title since 2013, and his 80th over all, at the Tour Championship in Atlanta, a two-hour drive from Augusta National.
If Woods is to win his fifth Masters title, he is going to have to vanquish a group of players who do not appear cowed by him. Molinari, 36, was paired with Woods in the final round of last year’s British Open and wrested the lead from him down the stretch to win his first major title.
And lurking one stroke behind Woods and Finau is Brooks Koepka, who held off Woods to win the P.G.A. Championship. Everything Woods’s younger competitors know about winning, they learned in their formative years by watching him attack courses without fear or finesse.
“He’s playing against guys that he kind of bred,” Finau said, adding: “The way he dominated and watching him growing up, it was like he was scared of nobody. So I think a lot of us try to be like him and try to be that way to where nothing on the golf course can scare us and our skills can showcase.”
Finau, 29, who is the PGA Tour’s first full-time player of Samoan and Tongan descent, watched the telecast of Woods’s 1997 victory from his family’s home in Salt Lake City. Finau, who was 7, said that when he watched Woods become the first man of color to slip on the green jacket, he was inspired to take up golf.
“I saw someone who had the same skin color as me,” Finau said in an interview last year. “As a kid, I could relate to that.”
From the time he began hitting shots into a mattress in his family’s garage, Finau fantasized about being grouped with Woods in the final round of a major. His dream will come true Sunday when he plays in the last threesome with Molinari and Woods. Masters officials moved up the tee times and decided to send the players out in threesomes instead of in pairs, and from both the first and 10th tees, because of a severe weather forecast for late Sunday afternoon. The last thing they want is for weather to play through the climactic finish to their 83rd tournament.
Woods’s resurgence has had the effect of introducing him to a generation of children who were not born when he won his most recent major title, at the 2008 United States Open. The youngsters can be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about when they see muscled players like Koepka and Jason Day.
Woods borrowed a page on training from the 83-year-old Gary Player, the sport’s first fitness fanatic, and added a few chapters. Woods worked out as if he were a wide receiver or track and field competitor. He was determined to destroy the perception that golfers were not real athletes. His dominance and the muscles he sculpted through a regimen of heavy lifting increased golf’s appeal to 20-something players like Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth — both major winners — who were proficient at multiple sports.
Before this year’s tournament, Spieth, the 2015 champion, described Woods’s fourth victory at Augusta, in 2005, as “kind of a big reason why I fell in love with the game of golf.”
And Spieth was hardly alone. Johnson said of Woods, “He kind of made golf, you know, a cool sport to play.”
Whatever happens on Sunday, Woods will be front and center, which is great for the Masters, greater for golf and greatest of all for Woods, who not so long ago thought he was done. At this year’s Champions Dinner, Player said he could not contain his smile when he casually asked Woods how he was doing. As Player recalled on Thursday, there was nothing offhand about his reply.
“I’m not finished yet,” Woods said.
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