BY PETER HAILEY
GAINESVILLE, Va. -- When Tiger Woods hit a miraculous second shot through a group of trees that landed just off the green on the second hole of his third round at the Quicken Loans National, the fans following him buzzed with excitement.
And when Woods went on to chip his third shot on to the green and tap in for par -- a tremendous save after a woeful tee shot -- the gallery at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club was thrilled.
"That's the old Tiger Woods!" one man yelled, as others marveled at Woods' ability to gather himself and end with a par after starting so poorly.
It was at that moment where hopes were highest -- hopes that Woods would heat up, continue to build off of his impressive first two rounds, and put himself in position to contend for a win at his own tournament.
Those hopes, however, were dashed about an hour and a half later starting on the eighth hole, as Woods would shoot 3-over on the final 11 after staying even through the first seven. As the round dragged on, and Tiger's drives got wilder and wilder, the 39-year-old was simply unable to hit the terrific rescue shots that he had at the start of the day.
Woods admitted he sensed something was awry while warming up on the range.
"Unfortunately, I warmed up that way," Woods said after posting a 74. "Sometimes it's one of those things you hit awful on the range and go stripe it on a golf course. That wasn't the case here. I warmed up, it was indicative of how I played."
The first two days for Woods brought along a lot of promise, and he began Saturday tied for fifth and just four shots off the lead. But as many golfers were able to climb up the leaderboard by taking advantage of the soft greens and warm temperatures at RTJ, he went the opposite way.
When all was said and done, Woods had fallen 37 spots, and heads into Sunday tied for 42nd.
"I was waiting for the one moment, the one shot," he said. "I couldn't find it. Basically it was a fight all day."
For Woods, an answer for why his swing was off and why he couldn't put together his third straight round with a score in the 60s wasn't immediately clear. But he did say he was sure it wasn't because it was the first time in a long time that he'd been in contention on moving day.
"I felt very comfortable out there," Woods said. "I've been there so many times. I saw most of the guys were at 3-under par or better through nine holes and felt like the course was definitely getable."
Woods is now trailing leader Troy Merritt -- who set a course record with a 61 in his third round -- by nine strokes, meaning the chances of him winning his first tournament since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational are a lot slimmer than they were Saturday morning. For those who travelled to Gainesville wishing to see glimpses of the old Tiger Woods, that's tough news to hear.
Even more unsettling for those Woods watchers, though, is having to wonder whether this version of Woods -- the one who teases us with a couple of quality shots only to follow them with bad ones -- is the one we'll see during the rest of his career. Some thought QLN would be the place where Tiger finally turned things around after a strong Thursday and Friday, but that doesn't look like it'll be the case anymore.
And if he keeps on this path that he's headed, there will be fewer and fewer fans like the one from the second hole yelling, "That's the old Tiger Woods!" after his best shots, simply because those memories will just keep falling further and further into the back of our minds.