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Aching Tiger Woods could be pain for leaders

Tiger Woods holds a golf ball on the

Tiger Woods holds a golf ball on the fifth hole as he waits to putt during the third round of The Barclays golf tournament in Jersey City, N.J. (Aug. 24, 2013) Credit: AP

JERSEY CITY - For a fellow who gingerly trod the Liberty National course like a cross between Fred Couples and Fred Sanford, Tiger Woods played just fine. His aching back still could turn out to be a huge pain for everyone else in the field.

It was suggested to Woods, after his wince-filled 2-under-par 69, that the hardest part was bending down to get the tee out of the ground and the ball out of the hole. "Boy, you're not lying," he said. "Yeah, I'm glad that's done for the day.

"I told Joey, 'Meet me at the range,' " Woods added, tongue in cheek, as if to say that caddie Joe LaCava should not hold his breath waiting for his boss to hit balls after having played 23 holes Saturday.

The whole long, painful day might have bolstered the argument that Woods never will surpass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships. He swings so hard and puts such pressure on his joints and muscles, his body just can't hold up.

Or can it? The way Woods finished, playing the back nine in 3 under, including a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 18 that left him right in contention at 8 under, was Exhibit A for the case that you simply cannot count him out.

"I just hung in there . . . kind of just hung around, hung around, hung around and had a nice finish," he said.

So stiffness notwithstanding, he has injected buzz into Sunday's final round of The Barclays, the first leg of the PGA Tour's four-stop FedEx Cup playoffs. He will be in the next-to-last group, alongside Kevin Chappell, who shot 62. "Well, I'm four back," Woods said.

While co-leaders Matt Kuchar and Gary Woodland were finishing their rounds, Woods was on his way to get unspecified treatment, which he has been undergoing all week.

His problem surfaced Wednesday, when he chose only to chip and putt during the back nine of his pro-am round because his back was bothering him. At the time, he cited a hotel bed that was too soft. A bed manufacturer quickly offered to deliver a new mattress and some people might have made a few crude jokes, but it felt seriously daunting for Woods. He could identify with the first line of the Emma Lazarus poem etched on the nearby Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired . . ."

Woods' history evokes the words of another New York institution, the old "Saturday Night Live" character Rosanne Roseannadanna: "It's always something."

There was the famous broken leg on which he won the 2008 U.S. Open, his most recent major title. There also have been the knee surgeries, the hamstring problem, the elbow injury at this year's U.S. Open. As much as critics always have said that golfers aren't athletes, Woods approaches his swing athletically.

"It's not like I go out there and puff it around. I kind of like to go at it a little bit," he said.

Let's be frank: He also does not go out of his way to hide his discomfort. You could see it in his expression Saturday. So it was easy to have written him off when he pulled his tee shot on No. 7, three-putted for a third bogey in a five-hole span and creakily walked to the next tee. But then he rebounded with a makeshift swing to make birdie 4 on No. 8. He birdied three of his last six holes. Right back (pardon the pun) in business.

"It's golf. You just kind of grind it out," Woods said.

Don't count him out Sunday. And physically, he could hold up just fine for years. As to whether he still has the mind game to grind out five more major titles, that is a story for another day.

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