CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- Under the strict ordinances of sports journalism, you are not allowed to root for an athlete or a team. But you are allowed to root for a story, and Tiger Woods winning his 15th major championship more than a decade after he won his 14th is the best available story on The Open board.
So I silently rooted for Woods while he shot his 5-under 66 on Saturday, and will do so again Sunday without reservation or any concern for the professional principles violated when sportswriters root, root, root for the home team. Tiger Woods is not the home team. He is a 42-year-old golfer who was broken physically, mentally, even spiritually (by his own admission) between the time of his last major victory and now. A completed comeback with the Claret Jug back in his hands might represent the greatest golf story ever told.
What true sports fan would really root against that?
None at Carnoustie, that's for sure. On an 18-hole walk with Woods and his starstruck playing partner, South African journeyman Shaun Norris, it was clear the Scottish fans were treating three-time Open champ as if he were a cross between Colin Montgomerie and William Wallace. Woods unleashed a barrage of birdies Saturday and reintroduced the Scots to the Tiger of old, not the old Tiger. They adored every sweet second of it before he landed at 5-under, four strokes behind defending champ Jordan Spieth, Kevin Kisner, and Xander Schauffele.
They chanted, "Tie-ga, Tie-ga" as he approached the 10th green to tap in during a run of three straight birdies. They exploded again when he finished off his two-putt birdie at the par-5 14th to tie Spieth and friends for the lead at 6 under, marking the first time Woods held the weekend lead in a major since he held a share of it 36 holes deep in the 2012 PGA Championship.
"The only one who was unhappy was my mother," Norris said. "She couldn't get close enough to the ropes to watch me."
A veteran of tours in South Africa and Japan, Norris had never met or played with Woods before this dream pairing left him paraphrasing Russell Knox, who was grouped with Tiger in the opening round.
"It's like playing with a mythical creature," Norris said. "It doesn't feel real."
Norris couldn't get over the size of the crowd following Woods. The crowd couldn't get over the precision of the shots Woods was hitting from tee to green. Once upon a time, Carnoustie went mad over another 40-something American named Ben Hogan, who took The Open (and a winner's share of £500) the one and only time he appeared in this championship.
Hogan had nearly been killed four years earlier when his car was crushed by a Greyhound bus. His 59-day stay in the hospital was compromised by life-threatening blood clots.
"One of the greatest comebacks there is," Woods had said three months ago at the Masters, "and it happens to be in our sport."
Woods' own recovery is a bit more complicated than that, as some of the damage to his career and his life was self-inflicted. But he appears now to be a more humble, less narcissistic version of his former self. He is trying to improve as a human being, and whether you buy that or not, or like him or not, here's a question to ponder:
Who really wanted to see one of the greatest athletes this country has ever produced benched forever by back injuries and surgeries that left him bedridden and locked in a prison of intense pain?
"Given what happened the last few years," Woods said, "I didn't know if [contending] would ever happen again, but here I am with a chance coming Sunday in a major championship. It's going to be fun."
In the fun department, the fourth round has a long way to go to match the third. Woods made a par-saving putt at the first hole, then went on a tear while the conspicuous fellow directly in front of him, Phil Mickelson, remained as quiet as a church at midnight. Woods pumped his fist after draining a long-range putt at the ninth to start his hottest streak of the round. By the time he approached the 12th green, he was 5 under and 1 shot off the lead.
Leaving the tee at the 13th, Mickelson looked over the tall grass to his left and stared at Woods, who was 6 strokes clear of him. Tiger didn't make eye contact with Lefty, who soon drew a cheer by obliging a fan's request to give a thumbs-up. Woods was too locked in to engage. His face was a mask of grim determination, just like it always was during the good ol' days.
That familiar weekend-Woods intensity was back. Gone was the rusty and uncertain golfer who did not contend at Augusta National and who missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and who arrived at Carnoustie saying, weakly, that his mission here was "to play some cleaner golf, and who knows?" When Woods missed a birdie on the 13th green Saturday that would have tied him for the lead, he flipped his putter into his grounded bag and cursed himself. A very good sign.
Tiger was so focused, so intent on acting like an in-his-prime Tiger, that he said he didn't notice he was tied for the lead from the 14th green to the 16th green, where he made his only bogey. For a little while, there his name was above all others on the Carnoustie scoreboards, and it was a glorious sight.
Norris seemed to enjoy the electric atmosphere as much as his world-famous playing partner did. On the first hole, as he stood over his approach shot, Norris took a couple of quick drags on his cigarette, flicked it to the ground Arnold Palmer-style, and then hit it close enough to make birdie before sitting back for the rest of the round and savoring the best seat in the house.
"He's close; he's very close," Norris said of Woods. "I wouldn't put it past him to come out in the next couple of months and really be firing. He's really starting to roll the ball well. He's hitting the ball exceptionally well, so I think, given time, he's working on the right things, and definitely he's going to be right at the top in a couple of months' time."
A couple of months? What about right here and right now?
"I think he's got a great chance," Norris said.
Woods made a critical par save at the 18th after his one ugly swing of the day -- off the tee -- nearly landed in the burn. He finished off his first Open round in the 60s since his last appearance at Carnoustie -- 11 years earlier to the day. He did it by deploying his driver and a more aggressive plan of attack.
The wind is scheduled to pick up for the final round, along with the pressure and the expectations. Mickelson erased a 5-shot deficit over the closing 18 holes when he won at Muirfield in 2013, at age 43. Woods is hitting it soundly enough to allow him to erase a 4-shot deficit over the closing 18 at age 42.
"I've got a chance at this," Tiger said, "which is great."
He's right. So no matter what you think of the man and his past, root for this. Root for one hell of a story.
Pull for Tiger Woods to deliver a Sunday they will be talking about for as long as golf is played.