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Tiger Woods has a realistic chance to win his 15th major. Get ready.

Tiger taps in for a critical finishing par save that keeps him in the hunt for Sunday.

Tiger Woods may not win on Sunday, but a fantastic Saturday charge that ignited the Open at least gives him a chance.

The last decade of Tiger Woods’ career has been a constant shift in expectations. There have been dramatic swing changes, personal scandals and embarrassments, Player of the Year seasons, grotesque play, and career-threatening injuries.

This time last year, it seemed unlikely he would ever play competitive professional golf again. Woods was at home, just a couple months removed from spinal fusion surgery, his fourth in three years. He was firing off an extremely random tweet about the new Oakland Raiders felt on his pool table. Exactly one year later, he was lighting up the British Open to pull into a tie for a weekend lead at a major for the first time in five years.

The few times we’ve seen Tiger play in the majors since 2013, he was, to put it bluntly, embarrassing himself. He was in pain and hopeless and then he was completely gone from competitive golf. This is the third major start in this successful return season, the one that felt like the last comeback attempt. Tiger has been a surprisingly competitive golfer all season after a steady four-year run of ignominy and injury. His world ranking may not corroborate it, but he’s effectively been a top 20 player in the world all season. He’s making almost every cut, getting some reps in contention, and, as far as we can tell, staying healthy.

The majors were a different story, however, and Tiger had really not put a scare into the leaderboards of the most important events. This was the first non-Masters major cut he made since the 2014 Open. Victor Dubuisson and Stephen Gallacher finished in the top 15 that year. In the two cuts he did make at the Masters, he never realllllly had a chance to win, playing out the string on the weekend as younger, more talented, and healthier pros ran away.

This weekend round was different. Tiger tied the lead during an almost flawless Saturday 66 that featured much more aggressive play, improved putting, and the typically arousing ballstriking display that’s been the one constant this season.

I wrote many words recently about Tiger’s golf mind, maybe the most brilliant in the history of the game, and how that is such an asset for links golf. The Open demands creativity, strategy, and decision-making that’s simply absent from most tournaments on USA courses. Tiger has said as much himself, over his two decades coming to Scotland and again this week. Here he is after Thursday’s first round:

I’ve always loved playing this championship. I’ve been able to win it a few times. I’ve just always enjoyed — this is how the game should be played. It should be creative. It should be played on the ground. You can utilize the ground as an ally. When we play home in the States, that’s not the case. Everything is going straight up in the air, but this is very different. It’s amazing the shot — the creativity. I mean, you can roll the ball 100 yards if you wanted to, or you can throw it straight up in the air. I like having those shot options.

That comment came after he decided to plot his way through the first round in a conservative way, hanging back off the tee with lesser clubs and letting them roll out where they might. That’s also how he won his last Claret Jug in 2006, keeping driver in the bag and strategically choosing to play a course dramatically longer than everyone else. About that strategy, Padraig Harrington said this week, “The way he played in 2006 at Hoylake, nobody else could have tried to play the golf course the way he did. Nobody else could have played the way he did. I suspect he couldn’t play that way now.”

Some of the bigger hitters, including Rory McIlroy, decided to blast driver the first two days while Tiger kept hanging back. On Saturday, Tiger’s links mind went to work on a course that’s somewhere in between those burnt-out fiery conditions from Thursday and the damper conditions on Friday. So he crafted a strategy and decided to pick some spots to go big and get aggressive with the driver, his most unreliable club (more on this strategy change here). This season, when Tiger pulls driver, you’re still watching the swing peeking through your covered face, scared about whether the ball will stay on the property.

Woods’ round really went into overdrive when he started ripping driver at the turn. He nuked the ball on 9, 10, and 11 and made birdies on all three to jump to the top of the leaderboard. The drives at 10 and 11 were right down the gut. He was wild at the 9th, but the distance advantage set up at least a chance at birdie and his putter put this extra gravy on the scorecard. You don’t expect to make these but you’ll take them and keep moving up the board.

At the 14th, he’d officially tie the lead at a real, competitive major championship. One of the great things about The Open is how they keep the players on pace. The weekend rounds rarely go over four hours and Tiger’s game came in right around 3:50. So if you stepped away for an hour or so on Saturday, you left with Tiger just kind of middling down the leaderboard and came back to one that felt like you were looking at a replay from a decade ago. It happened fast, but Tiger was on the weekend lead at a major.

And here’s where we get back into the constantly shifting universe of expectations. Tiger held the lead but he is certainly not going to be in the lead at the start of Sunday. There are still those talented, younger, and probably more healthy players coming in behind him and pushing the pace. Tiger holding a weekend lead does not mean Tiger is going to win or Tiger of 2005 is back.

Tiger surmised the lead would be around 10-under given the way the course is playing. That would put him a good five shots back. He started Saturday six shots back. Temper your expectations from the “Tiger’s tied for the lead” freakout moment on Saturday. That was fun and cool and it happened, which is remarkable in its own right. Sunday will be, too. He’s probably not going to win. But he could, and that’s a long way from struggling to stand upright while playing pool on your new Raiders felt.


Here’s your leaderboard:

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