There was a good reason the old champion resembled the young Tiger Woods yesterday. The old champion was trying to resemble the young Tiger Woods. He has turned back the clock to set uphis future.
Woods has been told by his coach, Sean Foley, "to do what I did when I was a kid". He has – and all the gifts of the prodigy are starting tore-reveal themselves. "Sean showed me video from my teenage years in which I am in the same impact position," said Woods. "He's like, 'That's amazing, we need to get you back there. You played some pretty good golf when you were young'."
Well, Woods is back there, perched atop a third-round leaderboard in an official event for the first time since that fire-hydrant incident rained ridicule over his reputation. Yes, he won the Chevron World Challenge in California last month, but that is little more than an exclusive 18-man raid of the ATM. With the world's top four in attendance the Abu Dhabi Championship is the real thing, and once again the world No 25 seems the real thing. Yesterday's 66 was control personified.
It was his second bogey-free round of the week as he cruised to 11 under. Rory McIlroy, playing alongside Woods for the third time in as many days, could only shoot a 68, and will have to spend this afternoon without his newest best friend. Yet he will be the likeliest to chase down Tiger and deny him the victorywhich could do so much to set up a defining season. "I've seen him close the last three days, how he's playing, and I feel if I go out there and play my best golf I've got a good chance," said McIlroy. "Obviously Tiger will take the crowds with him tomorrow and maybe I can quietly go along my business and pick up a few shots."
Robert Rock will be the quivering Englishman playing with Woods and the Swede Peter Hanson in the final three-ball. Rock and Woods are two clear of the pack including Hanson and McIlroy. Rock once worked at a driving range in Lichfield called Swingers, which is bound to cause a titter or two on the Tiger message-boards. For the 34-year-old, however,this is no laughing matter.
"Yes, I probably will be cacking myself on the first tee," said Rock, who at last year's Italian Open ended a nine-year wait to win his first European Tour event. "But this is an opportunity not to be missed. I want to say I've done it [beaten Woods] at least once. I'm not sure how much sleep I'll get, but we'll find out tomorrow how well I cope with it."
It might have been the classic golfing case of be careful what you wish for, but Rock was determined to achieve his ambition. "I bogeyed the 16th and thought that could cost me. The chance was slipping away, so I had to do something about it," he said.
Birdies on the last two holes, the 10-footer on the final green ensuring Woods did not hold the outright lead, was a gutsy response from the Midlander, who is not averse to late-night parties. There is something about his laidback persona which suggests he could just have what it takes to toppleTiger. On this evidence, however, it would be some effort. The sense was Woods had another gear to use, if he thought it necessary.
"I didn't do a lot of things right, but I didn't do a lot wrong either," he said. "It was just a very consistent round of golf. I stayed away from the troubleand kept the ball towards the fat side of some of those pins."
In contrast, McIlroy, as is his way, went for it, particularly on the 18th. He sliced his drive and tried a spectacular shot over the water which ended up behind a scoreboard. He escaped with his par to fight anotherday, and did so with a new admirer.
"I haven't played with Rory a lot before here, so this was quite a treat," said Woods. "He's a great kid and just an unbelievable talent. He's not afraid to take on shots, which is really cool to see, and it's just a matter of time before he gains more knowledge."
Perhaps this was the first glimpse of a friendly rivalry which will dominate the next five years of golf. What a boon it would be to have Woods returning to the elite, with that look back in his eye, with the certainty back in his walk, with the gallantry back in his gait.
A win today would haul him back into the world's top 10 and send him into his US Tour seasonal debut at Pebble Beach in two weeks' time with the progress at last living up to his billing. It's been a long time. Too long.