Tiger and the search for 18 holes of old magic

ST. LOUIS -- Here is the difference between Tiger Woods, right now, and the player he was at the start of the season, when this latest comeback attempt seemed promising but also uncertain.

He can make you feel, for about nine holes, like you've gone back in time 10 years.

The roars are just as thunderous. The ball flight is roughly the same. He'll hit everything flush, with a tempo that looks like he has a metronome inside his head, and he'll strut after his shots, twirling his club like he's a movie cowboy holstering his six-shooter.

Tiger can't seem to do it for a full 18 holes, at least not yet. Not in a major. Maybe he gets tired or maybe his focus wanes just a bit. Even he can't seem to explain it. But it feels, sometimes, like he's getting closer. Like he's about to put it all together and steal a 15th major, stunning a generation of players that grew up in awe of him but was too young to lock horns with him until now. He'll never be the player he was at the height of his powers, at least not for long stretches, but something is happening this summer.

You're getting glimpses of the old Tiger Woods. Maybe they're just flashes, but they're real.

Would it be too much to ask to get one sustained, five-hour burst of that old magic on Sunday at Bellerive Country Club?

No, Woods isn't going to be the favorite in the final round of the PGA Championship. At 8 under par, four shots behind Brooks Koepka, he might have too much ground to make up, even if he plays a good round and betters the 66 he shot in Rounds 2 and 3. He could even post a 63, to tie the lowest round in the history of the PGA Championship, and it still might not be enough if Koepka plays well.

But if you paid attention to how dialed in Woods was on Saturday, if you studied how frequently he stared down his shots, knowing every iron was going to land pin high, you're probably a believer. You know he's capable of poaching this major. The crowd following Woods at Bellerive, sometimes lined up five and six people deep, was going bonkers during a stretch when he made three consecutive birdies to close out his afternoon front nine. Even his playing partners had to smile.

"Kind of reminded me of being in the vortex a lot of years ago," said Stewart Cink, who played with Woods in the afternoon third round. "It was awesome. Being in Tiger's group is always exciting. Players try to downplay it, and I've downplayed it over the years myself because you're trying to downplay it yourself a little bit, but it's a pretty intense environment out there. It's fun. Hearing the crowd, and Tiger's performing great, it was like turning back the hands of the clock."

Woods' tempo -- particularly with his scoring clubs -- looked better than it has all year.

"I felt like it was one of those days, or one of those rounds, where it seems like everything is a full shot," Woods said. "It's not the half club. I wasn't stuck between clubs all day [on Saturday]. Consequently, I feel like I could freewheel it."

His driver, for the moment, isn't a liability. His putter, for stretches, can catch fire.

It just has to all come together, in harmony, for one afternoon.

Will it?

He refused to speculate on what it might feel like if that were to happen. "A long way to go," Woods said, shrugging off the question. But he also knows it's possible. You can see it on his face. At Carnoustie, he got a taste of what it felt like to be in the hunt again, and he couldn't quite close. Did he learn from that experience? Can he harness his adrenaline and calm his nerves the way he once did, better than any player in his generation?

Sunday will offer some answers.

"I got to shoot a low round [on Sunday] and hopefully it will be enough," Wood said. "Everyone's going to have to shoot low rounds. Its soft, it's gettable and you can't just go out there and make a bunch of pars; you're going to have to make some birdies."

Saturday was the first time this year Woods has been forced to play more than 18 holes in one day, and he admitted he was feeling it afterward. He has been sweating through his shirts each day, even changing them out in the middle of rounds, trying to stay comfortable in the muggy Missouri air. You could see it wearing on him as the day went on. He kept leaving putts short in the afternoon -- including a makeable eagle putt on 17 that he inexplicably turned into a par -- unable to mentally adjust to what he called some of the slowest greens he had ever played at a major.

"I'm tired," he said. "I am definitely tired -- 29 holes, it's not necessarily the physical, it's mentally grinding that hard for 29 holes in this heat. It was a long day."

There will be plenty of time to weigh what it would mean if Woods somehow pulls this off, if he comes from behind to win a major for the first time in his career. It would rival, and maybe trounce, every comeback story in recent history. Four back surgeries, five different swings, a scandal and a public humiliation, all of it part of the odyssey he has been on for a decade. Even if you never liked him, even if you were turned off by his icy arrogance, you'd have to appreciate what a thrill it would be to see him pull this off.

In all likelihood, it's not going to happen. Not at this major. There are too many good players ahead of Woods for them all to falter. But the fact that we're here, with a flicker or possibility of a comeback, ought to raise your heart rate just a tick. The best moments in sports aren't the ones we expect or the ones we see coming. They're the ones that sneak up on us.

Say this out loud, just to remind yourself how absurd it is: Tiger Woods had two bones in his spine fused together, hoping for nothing more than the chance to goof around with his kids again and sleep without crippling pain. Now he has a shot at winning another major championship.

Why root for anything else?