PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla (Reuters) - It was just like the halcyon days of a previous era as Tiger Woods carded his best ever score at TPC Sawgrass, a seven-under-par 65, in the third round of the Players Championship on Saturday.
Woods, a 79-times winner on the PGA Tour, was in control of all facets of his game and wielded a hot putter to record his lowest numerical score on the PGA Tour since 2015.
It was also his best score under par since 2013, though he has played only sparingly in the ensuing five years while nursing a serious back injury.
After making the cut with nothing to spare on Friday, Woods teed off trailing halfway leader Webb Simpson by 14 strokes on another perfect morning.
“I finally got off to a good start,” said Woods, who sent waves of excitement through the massive gallery with eight birdies in the first 12 holes, before adding a lone bogey.
At eight-under 208, he finished the day 11 strokes behind Simpson, who shot 68 for a record seven-stroke lead over New Zealander Danny Lee.
Saturday’s performance was the latest positive sign for 42-year-old Woods, a two-times winner of the Players Championship, who is trying to regain sharpness after last year’s successful spinal fusion.
“It was nice to see a few putts go in. I hit a lot of quality shots and 65 was probably as high as I could have shot today, which was kind of nice,” he said.
“To be eight-under through 12, realistically, I probably could have got a couple more out of it and got to 10 (under) for the day.
“Today I felt more comfortable with my overall warm-up. I felt I had better control of hitting it right-to-left and left-to-right, and consequently today I was able to shape the golf ball both ways.”
Woods has displayed patience, outwardly at least, in his quest to return to his best.
“It’s just a matter of playing and executing and putting the shots together,” he said.
“Eventually I was going to put all the pieces together and today for the most part I did that.”
Caddie Joe LaCava was not surprised by the quality of his boss’s iron game.
“If he can drive it well I’m never really worried about his iron game,” LaCava said, while at the same time tempering expectations.
“It’s one round so you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself.”
Fellow competitor Mackenzie Hughes was more bullish after playing with Woods for the first time.
“The guy’s going to win (more) majors,” said Hughes, who watched the 14-times major champion hoist a four-iron some 255 yards over a row of trees to the back of the green at the par-five ninth.
“It’s a shot I probably couldn’t make but I matched his birdie,” the Canadian told Reuters after shooting 68.
Reporting by Andrew Both,; Editing by Neville Dalton / Ian Ransom