ATLANTA — Tiger Woods moved closer to completing one of the most improbable comebacks in sports on Saturday, carding a sizzling five-under-par 65 at the Tour Championship to take a three-stroke lead as he goes into Sunday’s final round at East Lake Golf Club seeking his first title in five years.
Woods, who has had four back operations since spring 2014, missed all of the 2016 season and was limited to two rounds in 2017 and 11 starts in 2015. He has not won a tournament since August 2013 at the Bridgestone Invitational.
Woods birdied six of his first seven holes on Saturday, including five in a row, and ended the round at 12 under for the tournament. He was grouped with the world No. 1 Justin Rose, who after a rough start shot two under to go into the final round tied for second with Rory McIlory, at nine under.
The 30-player field here includes 18 of the top 20 players in the world rankings. Woods, who in his prime occupied the top spot for a record 683 nonconsecutive weeks, is now ranked 21st. McIlroy, who has spent 95 nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1, the second-most among active players, shot a four-under 66 on Saturday, closing with birdies on Nos. 16 and 18.
Woods won the 2007 Tour Championship here by eight strokes after taking a three-stroke lead into the final round. Until recently, that kind of dominance was a distant, albeit vivid, memory for Woods.
This year, Woods has six top-six finishes, but in none of those events did he enter the final round with the lead.
His best showings since returning to the PGA Tour in January, about nine months after spinal-fusion surgery, were two second places: at the Valspar Championship outside Tampa, Fla., in March, where he began the final round one stroke back, and at the P.G.A. Championship, the last major of the year, where he started the final 18 four strokes back.
Over the years, Woods has proved a peerless front-runner: He held at least a share of the 54-hole lead in all 14 of his major victories. In fifty-three of his 79 tour victories, he has held at least a share of the lead going into the final round.
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