AUGUSTA, United States (AFP) – Tiger Woods finds himself on the brink of completing one of sport’s greatest comeback tales, having played his way into Sunday’s last group for the final round of the Masters.
The 43-year-old American superstar, who once feared nagging back injuries would keep him from a normal life, fired a five-under par 67 Saturday to share second on 11-under 205 after 54 holes at Augusta National.
‘‘I’m just thankful to be able to come back here and play again,’’ Woods said.
Woods, a 14-time major winner who has not won a major title since the 2008 US Open, is level with countryman Tony Finau, both two strokes behind Italy’s Francesco Molinari, the reigning British Open champion.
The lead trio tee off at 9:20 a.m. (1320 GMT) Sunday after Masters officials moved up the start to try and finish before expected afternoon thunderstorms.
‘‘It’s an early start,’’ Woods said. ‘‘I’ll get the mind and body ready for tomorrow and get after it a little bit earlier than we’re used to.’’
And Woods admits there is tension as he tries to snap an 11-year major trophy drought.
‘‘I always feel pressure,’’ he said. ‘‘The day I don’t feel pressure is the day I quit. If you care about something, obviously you’re going to feel pressure.’’
Years of nagging knee and back injuries knocked the former world number one into the ranks of the also-rans, failed comeback bids bringing heartache. At one stage simple acts were painful. A return to golf form seemed an impossible dream.
Four-time Masters champion Woods, who hasn’t won a green jacket since 2005, underwent a last chance spinal fusion surgery in April 2017 that has revived the career of golf’s dominant player from 20 years ago.
Woods, who has never won a major title when trailing after 54 holes, contended for last year’s British Open crown before Molinari captured his first major at Carnoustie. He made a last-day PGA Championship charge but was fended off by Brooks Koepka.
Then Woods made his biggest breakthrough yet, snapping a five-year win drought by capturing the Tour Championship for his 80th career US PGA title – two shy of Sam Snead’s all-time record.
‘‘Last year was a step in the right direction and built a season around that and then here we are,’’ Woods said.
‘‘It has been a while since I’ve been in contention here but then again the last two majors counts for something.
‘‘I’ve been in the mix with a chance to win major championships in the last two years. And so that helps.’’
Roars for Woods have shown Augusta National fans support his fightback bid and they were huge Saturday, but Woods needed a quick re-think after a bogey at the par-4 fifth.
‘‘Just be patient. Very simple,’’ Woods told himself. ‘‘The golf course is certainly gettable, a lot of scores going out there. Let the round build. We’ve got a long way to go.’’
Woods responded with birdies on the next three holes and ran off three more on the par-5 13th and 15th and par-3 16th to briefly share the lead.
‘‘I’m just making sure I stayed in double digits (under par). That was the goal, make sure I got to double digits and I was able to do that.’’
Woods won his first major title at Augusta National in 1997, completed a run of four consecutive major wins here in 2001 and also took the title in 2002 and 2005. His knowledge of the course is crucial to his chances.
‘‘I don’t need to go after every single flag. Just put the ball in the correct spots so I can have gettable looks and gettable putts,’’ Woods said.
‘‘If I give myself those looks the way that I’m hitting my lines, I’m going to be all right.’’