With control of his shots and comfortable over the putter, Woods put together his best back-to-back rounds of the year with a 5-under 67 that gave him a one-shot lead going into the weekend at The Lakes.
It’s the first time he has led a tournament since the third round of the Chevron World Challenge last year, and the first time against a full field since his last win two years ago in the Australian Masters. Woods was tied for the first-round lead at The Barclays last year.
“I really played well,” Woods said. “Even though I shot 5 under, it felt it could have been 8 or 9 deep.”
He was at 9-under 135, one shot clear of a familiar name in these parts – and to Woods.
Peter O’Malley is a member at The Lakes and birdied his last two holes for a 66. O’Malley is memorable to some golf fans in the United States as the No. 64 seed who beat Woods in the opening round of the Match Play Championship at La Costa in 2002.
Jason Day, who played alongside Woods, managed to limit the damage from a few wayward shots and had a 68 to finish two behind. Bubba Watson, among eight Americans to came to the Australian Open to get ready for the Presidents Cup next week at Royal Melbourne, birdied his last three holes for a 70 and was three shots behind.
“He has more shots in the bag than me right now,” Day said. “He hits some shots that made me go, ‘Wow.’ I feel that I can play a lot of different shots, but some of the shots that guy hits, especially around the greens, are amazing. He is always in control and always composed.”
Robert Allenby, who has played with Woods many times over the years, saw a game that was starting to look vaguely familiar.
“Probably in the last six months, that’s the best I’ve seen him play,” Allenby said. “I’ve seen him at his absolute best … that was a different human being. He’s on his way back, that’s for sure.
“I think where he is right now is good enough to win. I think you’ll find if he keeps going the way he is going, he’ll win over the weekend.”
Woods has hit plenty of crisp shots, but if there was one that showed an increasing confidence in his swing, it came toward the end of the round on the par-5 eighth. He was in the middle of the fairway, 280 yards from the hole and facing a 15 mph wind. His 3-wood was pure, a bullet with the slightest fade to skirt a bunker and roll onto the green.
“I hit that good,” Woods said. “It was a slightly hanging lie and I had to start it at the bunker and just hammer it. It slid about 3 yards. That was the best shot I’ve hit the last couple of days.”
Woods still didn’t take advantage of the all the par 5s, failing to make birdie on No. 11 and No. 17, and having to settle for one when he missed a 10-foot eagle putt on the 14th. And he finally made a bogey on the 30th hole of this tournament with a drive into a dune, and an approach that left him a bad angle to the green.
He followed, however, with a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 4 that broke some 6 inches at the end and caused Woods to let out a little emotion, tapping his fist toward the ground. His only other mistake was a stinger 3-iron into the wind on the sixth that turned just enough to catch the sand amid more dunes.
Nick Watney faded on the front nine and shot 73, though he remained in the picture at 5-under 139.
A large crowd that packed into the knolls and dunes became louder the longer Woods stayed atop the leaderboard, and even some of the tournament officials appeared to get wrapped up in the day. At one point, they had his name spelled simply “Tiger” on a leaderboard.
For Woods, it was a strange sight.
“It feels good,” he said of his name listed first. “It feels good to be there playing properly.”
Woods repeated that he has been hitting the ball this well in practice at home in south Florida, and based on the other times he has changed swings, he referred to the process of getting confidence in practice and eventually taking it to the golf course.
“That’s progress. That’s what happens,” he said. “And once it starts coming, the confidence is building.”
The Americans lost one of their players at the Australian Open when Hunter Mahan withdrew Friday morning because of pain in the back of his right shoulder that wouldn’t go away. Rather than risking it, Mahan decided to take a few days of rest. He said he fully expects to be playing next week at Melbourne.
Woods was among the controversial selections by Couples to the U.S. team, especially because he hasn’t won in two years and rarely has put himself in contention. But it was a day like Friday, on the back of the opening round, that made any questions about him look moot.
“It’s a great pick,” Day said. “A few people questioned it. He was not playing that great a couple of months ago, but he has certainly turned it around. I like the way he’s playing. I have not played Royal Melbourne for a while, but I think it will be a good setup for him. He has a good short game right now. Overall, his game is looking good for next week.”
Allenby wound up missing the cut, while defending champion Geoff Ogilvy turned around a sloppy back nine with an eagle on the 17th to at least get to the weekend.
Watch third-round coverage of the Australian Open live Friday on Golf Channel from 8PM-1AM ET.