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In attempting vintage comeback, how Tiger Woods came up short in 3rd round at Quail

Tiger Woods climbs from 2 over to 1 under at Quail Hollow Club

Tiger Woods started to turn his game around on Saturday, May 5, 2018 in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club. Woods turn went from 2 over to 1 under in third-round action.
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Tiger Woods started to turn his game around on Saturday, May 5, 2018 in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club. Woods turn went from 2 over to 1 under in third-round action.

If I would have...

Oh, those words. They were as much Tiger Woods’ brand as Nike, or Monster Energy, or any other sponsor this week at Quail Hollow. They were his crutches during the first two rounds of the Wells Fargo Championship — where Woods shot an even-par 71 and then a 2-over-par 73 — and again on Saturday, even as Woods’ performance changed for the better.

Woods finished Saturday’s third round with a 3-under 68, leaving him at 1 under for the tournament. That’s fine. Not terrible, but not terrific, either.

If I had just...

Now, this isn’t mockery — reading over Woods’ news conference transcripts for his three rounds, especially Saturday, the pages are littered with phrases like that. And Saturday, at least, it was for good reason. Woods shot 3-under for the day, but he could have doubled that total, what with the greens playing easier and him putting better.

Despite shooting a 3-under-par 68 in the third round of the Wells Fargo Championship on Saturday, Tiger Woods was frustrated that he didn’t post a better score. After a back nine that saw him record birdies at 13, 14 and 15, Woods finished the round with a disappointing bogey at No. 18. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“If I would have made a few more putts or just putting normal, I would have been up there next to the lead,” Woods said. “I was so close to shooting about 7, 8 under today.”

And that may sound like more talk, but in truth, he really was playing like vintage Tiger Woods.

His score just doesn’t reflect it.

Woods’ first nine holes Saturday were unspectacular, but sufficient. He made three birdies, including on No. 7 and No. 8 for the second time this tournament, but also two bogeys. The back nine, however, was when Woods was dialed in.

First, he birdied No. 13. Then No. 14, which he had bogeyed a day earlier. At that point, you could feel the tension building in the gallery on No. 15, as the crowd — and the golf world, if we’re being honest — waited to see if Woods would make it three straight.

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Even on a par-5, Woods nailed his third shot on No. 15 to the far right edge of the green, setting him up with about a 55-footer for eagle. That would have been truly vintage Woods — instead, he left it about 7 feet short before sinking his third straight birdie.

“When I'm putting well, I don't feel like I should miss a putt inside 10 feet. I had a couple weeks like that. The '97 Masters and the 2000 U.S. Open, I didn't miss one like that under 10 feet for the week,” Woods said. “You get on runs like that.”

Tiger Woods watches the flight of his shot at the par-3, 249-yard No. 6 hole, where he finished with a par during Saturday’s third round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

If only that could have continued. At No. 16, Woods left his birdie putt about a foot short. At the perilous No. 17, flanked by water on the left side, he was even closer: an inch more, and Woods would have sat at 3 under overall.

But those back-to-back short misses spurred something in Woods, who only needed a par on No. 18 to be within striking distance of the leaders at 7 under. Instead? A first putt that raced almost 9 feet past the pin, setting Woods up for a three-putt bogey and a complete halt to his momentum.

“I got fooled,” Woods said of his first putt on No. 18. “Then hit a putt hard off again on the second putt, and the grain just ate it up.”

Tiger Woods says that he has been struggling with his putting and takes the blame for not correcting it.

When Woods finally came off the green at No. 18, he knew he’d blown some positioning for Sunday. Save those last two holes, and he’d realistically be in contention for Sunday. Save those last two holes, and vintage Tiger Woods carries some stream into the final round.

But now?

If I had just...

“If I can just post a good number tomorrow, see what happens,” Woods said. “The way these conditions are, (the players left) will go out and get to double digits under par.

“That may be out of reach tomorrow, but who knows. Maybe I can play a low one and see what happens.”

Tiger Woods says that he did not know if he would ever play golf again following his last back injury.