MIAMI: Tiger Woods had the crowd roaring, but rookie Corey Conners held his nerve to stay one stroke ahead of the former world No. 1 after three rounds of the Valspar Championship.
Woods, playing his fourth US PGA Tour event since returning in January from spinal fusion surgery last April, fired a four-under par 67 that left him tied for second on eight-under 205 alongside former US Open champion Justin Rose of England and American Brandt Snedeker.
They’re chasing Conners, who carded a 68 for 204 to maintain the lead he has held since the first round.
But once again Woods was the center of attention, and after years of battling injury he gave his fans what they wanted to see.
“The environment was incredible,” Woods said of the boisterous gallery that followed him. “People were into it… it’s been incredible.”
“I’ve played myself right there into contention, so it should be a fun Sunday,” said the 14-time major champion, who is chasing an 80th US PGA Tour title.
The 42-year-old, who has spoken of playing with a “new body” after the fusion surgery, swung with a clubhead speed measured as the fastest in the field.
His sharp short game was on full display when he chipped in for birdie from 30 feet away in the greenside rough at the par-four ninth, his ball rolling neatly into the middle of the cup.
“Nine was good,” Woods said. “It rolled in just like a putt, which was nice.
Woods hasn’t been in this good a position to add to his total since he finished tied for 10th at the Wyndham Championship in August of 2015, and he hasn’t lifted a trophy since the 2013 World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational.
After his birdies at the ninth and 10th, Woods was tied with Conners for the lead.
He couldn’t convert birdie opportunities from within eight feet on his next two holes, and his lone bogey of the day at 13 saw him briefly drop three behind Conners — who had just made his sixth birdie of the day at 12.
Woods responded in style, blazing a drive 327 yards at the par-five 14th to set up a birdie that put him back at eight-under.
Conners bogeyed 16 to see his lead shrink.
But he got up and down for par from a bunker at 17, and when his ball moved slightly on the 18th green he stayed calm, consulted a rules official and finished out with a par.
“I tried to get relaxed as early as possible and fortunately got off to a good start and kind of settled me down nicely,” Conners said. “Kept things pretty solid throughout the round.”
Woods will play in the penultimate group on Sunday alongside Snedeker who also carded a 67 while Rose fired a five-under 66 — highlighted by an eagle at the 11th — to reach eight-under.
Rose said his eagle “ignited things” for him. He rolled in a 20-foot birdie at the 12th and added another at 15.
“I putted really, really well on the back nine,” Rose said. “Every putt I had I thought it was going to go in.”
But even playing in a different group, Rose was aware of the electricity surrounding Woods.
“We’ve been hearing it all week,” Rose said. “I think two or three times on the golf course our paths crossed, there’s a lot more fuss going on the periphery.”