CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (AP) — They crowded 15 deep against the metal railings down the left side of the 18th fairway, beers put aside and phones pulled out for the moment at hand. All day long they had heard the cheers rolling across the links of Carnoustie and, finally, he was here.
This was their chance to help bring Tiger Woods home.
“Tigah,” they shouted as Woods hacked out of the rough and then stuck a wedge to 3 feet on the final hole. “Go on Tigah!”
If it wasn’t exactly Tigermania, it was close. On this day Zach Johnson didn’t matter to most of the crowd at the British Open, and neither did Kevin Kisner.
Even defending champion Jordan Spieth seemed ordinary, in a round where he was doing some extraordinary things.
On a British Open leaderboard full of big names, there was only one star.
And that could lead to a lot of disappointed golf fans in the final round when it really matters.
For Woods, Saturdays have been the easiest part of his latest comeback. The real test comes Sunday, when he’ll have to find a way to come from behind and actually win the Open — something he didn’t do even in his prime.
He’s four shots back of Spieth and two others after a sparkling 5-under 66. It’s the closest he’s been to the lead in a major championship since he was two back at Muirfield in 2013.
But there are five players between him and the outright lead — and what amounts to two threesomes tied with him.
At the age of 42, finding a way to win is going to be a tall task.
“It would be, as you said, better on Sunday,” Woods said in response to a question afterward. “But I’m right there. I’ve got a chance at this, which is great.”
Woods isn’t the only one who thinks so. The possibility of him vying for the lead on Sunday is as tantalizing for at least one of his competitors as it is for golf fans.
And therein lies another problem for Woods.
The players of yesterday used to roll over for him. The players of today want to mix it up with him.
“I’ve always wanted to battle it out in a major with Tiger,” Spieth said. “Who hasn’t? It’s kind of a dream come true just to have the opportunity.”
Spieth believes there will be a much different golf course in front of players Sunday than there was in the third round, when the greens were holding, the wind was nonexistent and the temperature as warm as it gets this time of the year in Scotland.
That will make it more difficult on the opening stretch of holes for everyone in the later groups, including Spieth who hit a driver onto the first green and made eagle on his way to a 65 that tied him with Kisner and Xander Schauffele.
It could also lead to early players leapfrogging over the group of players — and there are seven in all — tied with Woods for sixth place and making it even more difficult to move up the leaderboard.
“That’s certainly doable with hopefully the weather that comes in tomorrow,” Woods said of his chances. “If it doesn’t come in and we get conditions like this, then we know we’re going to have to shoot between 6-, 7-, 8-under par tomorrow to have a chance.”
For Woods, there’s an added burden. He not only hasn’t won in his latest comeback, but has made crucial mistakes on the few occasions he was able to sniff a leaderboard.
He surely hasn’t forgotten how to win, but he hasn’t been able to will himself to a win as he might have in the past. And the fact remains it’s been 10 years since he last won a major championship, no matter how much he still excites a crowd.
Still, on Saturday he did his best imitation yet of Tiger Woods in his prime. Woods pulled driver out of the bag six times — after using it only four times in his first two rounds combined — and for the most part hit it straight and long.
His putts were also spot on, and it could be argued he ran enough of them around the hole that his round should have been even lower. For 20 or so glorious minutes he even had a share of the lead, before a 3-putt on 16 and a surge from those playing behind him toppled Woods from the top.
Best yet, he’s feeling a bit like the Tiger of old.
“It’s been a few years since I’ve felt like this,” Woods said.
He’s got 18 holes to make a move, 18 holes to make a statement.
Eighteen holes where he will have to believe just as much as the fans.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg