CHIBA, Japan — When Tiger Woods arrived to Narashino Country Club shortly after sunrise on Sunday morning, he led the Zozo Championship by two shots. When he left shortly after sunset—10 hours and 106 pressure-packed shots later—he led by three.
In that sense, mission accomplished. But the job isn’t finished just yet.
Woods moved closer to claiming a record-tying 82nd PGA Tour title on Sunday, shooting a third-round 66 then playing his first 11 holes of the final round in two under. He will return Monday at 7:30 a.m. local time (6:30 p.m. EDT on Sunday) to complete this tournament, which was delayed by record-setting rainfall on Friday.
The top of the leader board at the first official PGA Tour event played in Japan is made-for-Hollywood stuff. Leading is Woods, golf’s biggest star, at 18 under. Alone in second Hideki Matsuyama, Japanese golf’s biggest star, three behind after finishing birdie-birdie.
“It was a long day in the saddle today,” Woods said. “We’ve been out for the better part of 10 hours. I felt like I played well, but I left a few out there and made a couple mistakes.
“I took advantage of the soft conditions today. I fired at quite a few flags and was able to get the ball close a number of times, and made a few putts.”
After starting the tournament, his first of the 2019-’20 tour season, with back-to-back 64s, Woods made a three-putt on his opening hole Sunday. Perhaps that gave the field hope that Woods would sputter, that he might struggle with the physical challenge of playing eight-plus hours on a knee that required surgery just two months ago.
That hope was misguided, as Woods—who is playing in Japan for the first time since 2006—quickly showed that his iron play was still spot on. At the par-3 third, Woods flagged a short iron, then drained a 12-footer for birdie. He added birdies at the lengthy par-4 fourth and at the par-5 sixth to reach 14 under and seize control of the tournament.
“I figured if I stayed where I was at, I wasn’t going to have the lead,” Woods said. “I had to make birdies. The golf course was soft. It was pretty benign, and I just felt like I had to keep making birdies. And, for the most part, I did that.”
Sunday may have been Woods’ best ball-striking display thus far in Japan, which is saying something given the 16 birdies he compiled over the first two rounds. Armed with a gentle fade that has bordered on automatic, Woods took aim at flag after flag, setting up birdie chances inside 12 feet on Nos. 8, 11 and 13, and holing all three putts to push his advantage as large as five shots.
At that point, a blowout appeared imminent. But Woods played the rest of the round in one over par, including a disappointing bogey at the par-5 14th and a three-putt par to close the round. A strong finish by Matsuyama (who shot a third-round 65) meant Woods’ lead was just three when he headed to the clubhouse for a 45-minute break ahead of the final round.
Woods ate a quick bite, changed into his signature red-and-black and promptly set the tone once more with a birdie on the first hole.
The game’s best frontrunner was frontrunning. Woods is a ruthless closer—he has won 43 of the 45 times he’s entered the final round with a lead and 24 of 24 when that lead was three shots or more—largely because he’s able to play stress-free golf when he gets his nose in front. The formula: hit a bunch of greens, give yourself a bunch of birdie looks and avoid mental mistakes. He stuck to that as the light faded from Narashino.
“It’s a long period of time to be in and out of focus,” Woods said. “Just a long period of time. The mind tends to wander a little bit, but you have to grab it and make it come back, and be 100 percent committed on the shot.”
The only mistake in the start of the final round came via a chunked chip that led to a bogey on the fourth hole, but he made up for that quickly with birdies on Nos. 5 and 6. Woods parred his last five holes, including an up-and-down on 11 to cap the 29-hole day.
Woods was asked whether he’d played more than 18 holes in a single day since the operation.
“Yeah, I have … but it was in a cart,” he said before noting that he was pleased with how his body held up. “It’s a little different when you have to walk out here, squat up and down to read putts. Just all the little things that go into playing tournament golf, which is a little different than buzzing around back home playing 36.”
Woods’ first shot on Monday will be a tee ball at the difficult par-4 12th. A solid start could well lead to a historic finish. Still, Woods’ attention is directed at the task at hand, not the record books.
“If I do what I’m supposed to do and get the job done, then I get a W,” he said. “I guess that’ll add up to the 82 number. But my main focus is doing what I need to do.”