Two years after believing his stellar career was over, Tiger Woods produced a vintage performance to put himself firmly in contention for a first major title since 2008 in the 83rd Masters.
But standing in his way is an inspired Open champion in the shape of Francesco Molinari, who played with Woods in the final round at Carnoustie last year on his way to lifting the Claret Jug.
Molinari, who also beat Woods three times alongside Tommy Fleetwood in compiling a perfect 5-0 record in the 2018 Ryder Cup, carded a flawless third round of 66 to finish 13 under par and has dropped just one shot all week, on the 11th hole on Thursday.
“I wish I only had to worry about him but there are a few more that are going to try to shoot a low round so it’s going to be exciting,” Molinari said.
Woods is two shots back after riding his luck at times in a third round of 67, with Tony Finau alongside Woods after a brilliant 64, the third of the day after earlier efforts from Webb Simpson and Patrick Cantlay.
It is the first time that multiple rounds of 64 or lower have been recorded in the same week and more history will be made on Sunday, with the final round starting from both the first and 10th tees due to forecast thunderstorms in late afternoon.
The players will be sent out in groups of three from 07:30 local time (12:30 GMT), with the final group getting under way at 09:20 local time (14:20 GMT).
“I’m playing for my fifth (green jacket) but I’m trying to win a golf tournament at the end of the day,” said Woods, who revealed he faces a 4am alarm call in order to get his body ready for the final round. “It’s about going out there and executing under pressure.”
The 43-year-old needed a nerve block simply to attend the Champions Dinner at Augusta National in 2017 and flew to London the same evening to consult a specialist about his ongoing back problems.
“I was done at that particular time,” Woods said when accepting an award from the Golf Writers Association of America earlier this week.
“It was tough and uncomfortable. I ended up going to England that night, saw a specialist there, [and] they recommended unfortunately for me the only way to get rid of the pain I was living in was to have the spinal fusion surgery.”
The operation was a last roll of the dice but proved a success, Woods returning to competition in November that year and then playing a full season in 2018, culminating in his 80th PGA Tour in the Tour Championship in Atlanta.
Woods had also contended for the last two majors of the year, leading the Open at Carnoustie with eight holes to play before finishing sixth and finishing runner-up to Brooks Koepka, who lies three shots off the lead here in pursuit of a fourth major win in his last seven appearances.
After dropping a shot on the fifth for the third day in succession, Woods made a hat-trick of birdies from the sixth before getting away with wayward drives on the ninth, 11th and 13th, the latter even resulting in a birdie after bouncing out of the trees and back into the semi-rough.
More orthodox birdies followed on the 15th and 16th but Molinari followed a front nine of 34 with four birdies in succession from the 12th and capped off a superb display with a brilliant bunker shot to save par on the 18th.
After beginning the day four shots off the lead, Finau made a flying start with four birdies in the first six holes and then came within inches of an albatross on the par-five eighth before tapping in for an eagle.
Further birdies on the 13th and 15th completed a brilliant day for the 29-year-old, who famously popped his ankle back into place after dislocating it while celebrating a hole-in-one in the par-three contest last year.
Brooks Koepka, who started the day level with Molinari, kept in touch and finished the day sitting on his own in fourth spot on ten under par.
The reigning US Open and PGA champion carded only two pars on a topsy-turvy front nine in which bogeys regularly cancelled out birdies. He found a greater consistency on the back nine and a stunning eagle on the par-5 15th parachuted the American up the standings.
Among the remainder of the leading quintet at the halfway point, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott and Jason Day all struggled to make headway, carding underwhelming rounds of 71, 72, and 73 respectively on a day when scores were low across the board generally.
England’s Ian Poulter is just four shots off the lead after compiling an excellent 68 alongside Woods, with Simpson alongside Poulter on nine under.
Rory McIlroy had earlier missed out on the low scoring, a third round of 71 effectively ending his chances of a first Masters title to complete the career grand slam.
“It was just one of those weeks, just not quite had it,” McIlroy said after an erratic round containing an eagle, four birdies and five bogeys. “I knew my game was good coming in here, I’ve not let any external pressure get to me.
“I know I can play this golf course, just this week I have not played it well enough.”