By Doug Ferguson, AP Golf Writer
For thousands of fans crammed into every corner of East Lake, it looked as though Tiger Woods was closer than ever to capping off this remarkable comeback season by winning the final PGA Tour event.
Four straight one-putts on the back nine Sept. 21 in the Tour Championship — three for birdie, one for par — offset a double bogey and gave Woods a 2-under 68 and a share of the 36-hole lead for the first time in three years. Not since Doral in 2013 has he been atop the leaderboard after each of the first two rounds.
Tiger Woods tees off to the second hole during the second round of the Tour Championship golf tournament, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Woods sees it differently.
He’s the one coping with Bermuda rough deep enough to hide all but the top of a golf ball, with greens that are slick and firm and with a golf course that is the most demanding test players have seen this side of a major.
“We have a long way to go,” Woods said. “And this is not an easy golf course.”
For so much of the second round, even as he struggled to keep the ball in play, Woods was making it look that way.
He appeared to be building separation against the 30-man field with that four-hole stretch on the back nine that he capped off with a 25-foot birdie putt on the peninsula green at the par-3 15th. But then a tee shot into the rough led to a plugged lie in a bunker and a shot he had to play away from the 16th green, leading to double bogey. A two-putt birdie on the final hole gave him a share of the lead with Justin Rose.
They were at 7-under 133.
Rose, in his debut at No. 1 in the world, played in front of Woods and could hear all about it with an enormous gallery. He birdied three of his last six holes to offset a bogey for a 67.
“Playing with him versus playing in front of him today, I think it was just big crowds no matter what,” Rose said. “Obviously, people are excited about watching Tiger play again. … It’s exciting for people to get a look at him back at his best and it will be fun to be play with him.”
Woods last shared the 36-hole lead at the Wyndham Championship in 2015. He wound up in a tie for 10th, and then was gone from the PGA Tour for the next 17 months while he recovered from two back surgeries. One more back surgery followed that brief return in 2017, and it’s been a slow road back.
In the FedEx Cup finale, however, Woods is picking up momentum. He opened with a 62 at Aronimink two weeks ago on a rain-softened course and stayed within five shots of the lead the rest of the way until he tied for sixth.
Now his name has been atop the leaderboard for consecutive rounds, and it’s not an accident.
East Lake, with its shaggy Bermuda rough and dry, fast conditions, requires nothing short of precision. Woods wasn’t nearly as sharp as he was Thursday when he started with a 65, but he missed in the right spots. Despite hitting only two fairways through 11 holes, he wasn’t losing much ground.
“This course, the way it’s playing right now, you’ve got to be so patient,” Woods said. “It’s hard to make birdies, and on top of that, it’s hard to get the ball close. It’s very easy to make mistakes, make a few bogeys here and there. And look at most of the field. That’s basically what they’re doing.”