Tiger Woods takes 54-hole lead at Tour Championship after 5-under 65

ATLANTA -- Back where he seemingly always was, Tiger Woods is in position to win his 80th PGA Tour title on Sunday at the Tour Championship and will take a three-shot lead over Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose into the final round.

Never before has Woods failed to convert when he had such a big advantage through three rounds. But, of course, these are different times, Woods is a different golfer, and McIlroy and Rose have rarely, if at all, had to contend with him at his peak.

Still, a 5-under-par 65 to forge a three-stroke advantage after being tied for the 36-hole lead at East Lake produced some vintage stuff, as Woods birdied six of his first seven holes.

"I would love to be able to win this event,'' said Woods, 42, who is playing for the 18th time in 2018 after missing most of the past two years due to multiple back surgeries. "I've got a three-shot lead. I've got a bunch of guys behind me who have been playing well and are playing well. We'll see what happens.''

It should be fascinating.

Rose, 38, is the No. 1-ranked player in the world and has had an enormous run over the past 12 months, winning four times worldwide and posting 16 top-10 finishes. In three previous rounds with Woods this year, Rose shot the lower scorer but couldn't keep up Saturday, finishing with a 68 after starting bogey-bogey.

Rose is still in position to capture the FedEx Cup, the season-long points race that concludes Sunday. Bryson DeChambeau, the leader coming into the Tour Championship, is tied for 21st. Rose would automatically capture the title with a win, and unless there is a big rally by DeChambeau, he would likely capture the overall title with a third- or fourth-place finish.

The winner of the FedEx Cup receives a $10 million bonus, and Woods has a shot if Rose falters. He needs to capture the Tour Championship and have Rose drop to a fifth-place tie or worse to have a chance at his third FedEx Cup title.

McIlroy, 29, won the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this year -- Woods tied for fifth -- but has been mostly frustrated of late, unable to get the most out of his game. He finished second at The Open, where Woods briefly led on the back nine, and will be paired with him in the final round for just the second time after birdieing two of the last three holes for a 66.

"All I can do is worry about myself,'' McIlroy said. "It doesn't matter who it is I'm playing with. It's obviously exciting for the golf tournament. It's exciting for golf in general that he's up there. But for me, all I can do is concentrate on myself. The game is hard enough without looking at other people. Go out there, take care of my business, and hopefully that's good enough.''

For Woods, that will clearly be the mindset. He has given himself the cushion he has craved, the advantage from which he was seemingly so unbeatable during his prime.

Woods is 53-4 on the PGA Tour when he holds at least a share of the 54-hole lead. The last time he was in this position was when he won the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the most recent of his 79 PGA Tour victories.

His last blown 54-hole lead was a 2-shot advantage over Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship. Woods has never lost a three-shot lead or more in 23 attempts.

"Simple math says that if I play a clean card, that guys behind me have to shoot 67 to force into extra,'' he said. "That helps. I don't have to shoot 63 or 64 and hope I get help. That's a big difference. This is a spot I'd much rather be in than certainly four or five back.''

That has been the biggest issue when Woods has had chances during his comeback. Other than the Valspar Championship, in which he trailed by one heading into the final round and ended up finishing tied for second behind Paul Casey by a single shot, Woods has been fighting from well behind in his other top-10 finishes.

The closest he was through 54 holes was four shots at The Open and at the PGA Championship, in which not even a final-round 64 was enough. He finished two back of Brooks Koepka.

Woods got off to a dream start, makings 3s on his first five holes and playing his first seven holes in 6 under. At that point, he led by 5. His first bogey came at the par-3 ninth, and he turned in 30. He slowed down on the back nine, making just a single birdie, doing well after leaving a chip shot short at the 16th to make a bogey and failing to birdie the 18th. For the day, Woods had nine scores of 3 on his card. He settled for a 65, the lowest score of the day.

"The crowds were electric because of it,'' Rose said. "He was running the tables there. He was hitting good shots and making the conversion putts. But also I realized how much golf there was to play. So it was about me and just what I had to do. It was the kind of day that if I let my focus drop or if I got frustrated or if I did anything wrong, it was the kind of day that could unravel.''