CHIBA, Japan — Any doubts as to whether Tiger Woods was really, truly a threat to win this week at the Zozo Championship were answered on the first hole Saturday at Narashino Country Club. Woods started things with a high-draw fairway wood down the middle, followed that with a knockdown approach right at the flag, and punctuated it all by holing a four-foot birdie putt dead center.
A three-perfect-shot birdie got Woods off to an ideal start to his second round of the Zozo. The finish wasn’t bad, either—Woods birdied 17 and 18 to shoot a second-straight 64. His two-day, 12-under-par 128 total has him in his most familiar place: alone atop the leader board. He’s two shots clear of U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, while Keegan Bradley and home-country hero Hideki Matsuyama are two shots further back at eight under.
“I’ve been able to hit my irons pretty well this week, and that’s been nice,” said Woods after shooting the 58th round of 64 or better in his PGA Tour career. “Today, I left a lot of my approach shots below the hole. I was able to be pretty aggressive.”
A record-tying 82nd career tour win feels like a realistic possibility for Woods, who is making his 2019-’20 season-debut and his first start since undergoing knee surgery in August. Of the 33 previous times Tiger has held a solo 36-hole lead on tour, he has won 28.
Should that historic scenario play out, roughly 5,500 miles away from the site of his first PGA Tour win in Las Vegas in October 1996, it wouldn’t happen until Monday. Record-setting rainfall forced play to be cancelled on Friday—Woods saw the “Joker” movie during his forced day off—and tournament organizers have been playing catch-up ever since. The third round will begin at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, and Woods will tee off at 8:30 a.m. alongside Woodland and Bradley. Players will complete as many holes as possible on the day, but an early sunset will force proceedings to bleed into Monday morning.
“It’s gonna be a bit of a test, mentally and physically, to play for up to 10 hours,” Woods said. “It’s going to be a long day.”
Narashino was pounded with typhoon-like conditions on Friday—in total nearly 10 inches fell throughout the day—and it took a significant effort from the grounds crew to get the course ready for play come Saturday morning. Narashino’s zoysia grass dried remarkably well, but the course was still closed to spectators for safety reasons.
That led to a starkly different scene than on Thursday, when Woods played in front of a massive crowd that was overjoyed to see the 15-time major champion return to Japan for the first time in 16 years. All nine of Woods’ birdies during his opening round set off deafening roars; his first one Saturday resulted in polite applause from the 100 or so media and credentialed guests following his group.
“I made a couple putts today, I was about ready to put my hand up. Then I said, ‘don’t put your hand up,’ there’s no one clapping,” he joked.
Woods’ lone bogey of the day came at the second hole, where he pulled a short iron left of the green and tugged a four-footer for par. He made four straight pars following that dropped shot before holing a 25-footer for birdie on the par-3 seventh.
That started a terrific stretch for Woods. Although it didn’t quite match his birdie binge from Thursday, he did make four birdies in seven holes, including a left-to-righter breaker on the par-3 12th that saw him catch Woodland atop the leader board.
It should be noted that one of those “birdies” came on the par-4 10th hole, where a gargantuan puddle in the fairway forced tour officials to move the tee up more than 200 yards. The hole played roughly 150 yards, but due to logistical issues, it still officially was recorded as a par 4, so Woods’ two-putt for a 3 counted as a birdie. (The hole is expected to be played in its entirety the rest of the tournament.)
There was no asterisk necessary for Woods’ final two birdies on Saturday. On the 17th, he hit a majestic drive into the fairway before cutting a short iron to two feet At the closing hole, Woods launched a sky-high 5-wood that landed 15 feet from the hole, setting up a makeable eagle attempt. He two-putted to keep his scoring average for the 2019-’20 season at an even 64.0.
Woods’ performance thus far might be surprising to many, particularly given an uneven performance in Monday’s MGM Resorts The Challenge: Japan Skins. Not included among those surprised: Tiger himself, who knew how well he had been hitting the ball back home in Florida. But hitting it well in a friendly Nassau and hitting it well in a PGA Tour event are two different propositions.
“One of the hardest things about coming off a layoff is finding the feel of a round … getting a scorecard in your hand is a totally different feeling,” Woods said. “I got behind yesterday, but I was able to dig my way out of it. I was able to get myself back in the tournament.”