Of all the people charting Tiger Woods’s progress as he tries to find his way back to the winner’s circle, Patrick Reed possesses perhaps the keenest perspective. Reed was grouped with Woods in the Bahamas in December during Woods’s first competitive round after his fourth back surgery, and Reed played alongside him again on Saturday during the third round of the Memorial Tournament.
Both times, Reed watched Woods produce shots so pure they could have been lifted from an instructional video. Both times, he saw Woods briefly grab a share of the lead. But it was the differences in the two rounds, played six months apart, that made the biggest impression on Reed.
Woods’s ball-striking is so solid, as evidenced by the majestic flight and spin of his ball, that he is definitely on the right track, said Reed, the reigning Masters champion. “The scary thing is, everyone knows Tiger as being such a good putter,” Reed said. “And he hasn’t really shown that this week, and he’s still shooting the numbers he has.”
Playing the Muirfield Village Golf Club layout where he has posted five of his 79 PGA Tour victories, Woods recorded his second consecutive sub-70 score on Saturday. He chased his five-under-par 67 on Friday with a 68 on Saturday for a 54-hole total of nine under. Woods, who leads the field in strokes gained tee to green, is five behind the front-running Bryson DeChambeau, who is 24.
Woods missed five attempts from that distance in the second round. On the back nine on Saturday, he missed two putts of four feet, one for a birdie at No. 14 and the other for par at No. 18, and settled for bogey at No. 16 after an errant seven-footer.
“Shooting in the low 60s could have been pretty easy if I had just putted normally,” said Woods, who practiced putting after his Friday round until darkness fell. He said he had smoothed out a technical glitch in his stroke, but down the stretch he reverted to his previous pattern.
“I was releasing the putter beautifully early,” Woods said, adding: “My toe was moving nicely. And just didn’t do it at the end.”
On Thursday, Woods started on the more difficult back nine, played his first two par-5s in three over and stood at four over after seven holes. He has played his last 47 holes in 13 under. Asked if his game was good enough to win, Woods said: “Well, I was 11 under par, and I had wasted a bunch of shots the last two days, and I was four over par in the first round. So you do the math.”
Niemann did another kind of math and figured he was “5 or 6” when he saw Woods for the first time on television. Smiling to reveal a mouth full of braces, Niemann said, “It’s really nice to be playing with him now.”
If it is not one teenager, it’s another. Before Niemann, Woods noted, there was Sergio García, who burst onto the scene as a challenger in 1999 at age 19. “It’s nothing new,” said Woods, whose Sunday grouping will include Whee Kim, a 26-year-old from South Korea who on Saturday described Woods as “my legend.”
Kim was excited to be playing alongside Woods, who surprised him at a PGA Tour event a couple years ago by playfully engaging him in a short, and mostly profane, conversation in Korean. Woods told him he had Kim’s countryman K.J. Choi to thank for his limited Korean vocabulary.
“I think he’s funny,” Kim said.
Woods holds numerous Memorial tournament records, including most victories, most consecutive titles (three, starting the year after Niemann was born) and largest margin of victory (seven strokes in 2001).
But if he were to win on Sunday, he would not set one for longevity. The oldest champion, Kenny Perry, was 47 when he won in 2008. So as Woods charts his course back to the winner’s circle, it could be said he has time on his side.