ATLANTA – Tiger Woods had a chance to pull away from the field. He had to settle for a one-shot lead Friday in the Tour Championship, which was still not a bad place to be.
Over the final four holes, Woods missed consecutive putts from about 4 feet – one putt for eagle, the other for birdie – and closed with a bogey for a 2-under 68 in sweltering conditions at East Lake to lead Padraig Harrington and Sean O’Hair.
Woods was fuming over the missed putts. He found perspective shortly after signing for his seventh consecutive round in the 60s.
“The day as a whole was a good day,” Woods said. “I shot under par, I got myself … in the lead.”
Despite the lost opportunities, he was at 5-under 135 and in great position to capture the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus. None of the other players among the top five seeds – who can win the FedEx Cup with a victory at East Lake – were among the top 10 on the leaderboard going into the final two rounds.
Harrington would have to win the Tour Championship and have Woods finish in a two-way tie for second. O’Hair needs a victory and for Woods to be in at least a three-way tie for second.
The possibility is there. Woods is 33-7 when he has at least a share of the 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour, although it was only a month ago that he had a four-shot lead in the PGA Championship and wound up losing to Y.E. Yang.
The immediate concern is winning the FedEx Cup finale at East Lake. And those scenarios also are numerous.
Ernie Els came to life with five birdies over his last 10 holes for a 66 and was only two shots behind at 3-under 137. Kenny Perry, who nearly wilted in the heat Thursday, also had a 66 and was at 2-under 138, along with Jerry Kelly (67).
“If I win this golf tournament and Tiger finishes second … I’m going to be throwing a big party and jumping with joy,” O’Hair said. “If I don’t win the 10 million bucks, I should have played better. A win is a win. Let’s face it, I’ve got to win this golf tournament to win the $10 million. If I do my job, that’s all I can do.”
It all starts with Woods, who appears to be on his game.
Three straight birdies to close out the front nine put Woods atop the leaderboard, and he really put on a show over the final hour before fans that crammed behind the ropes on both sides of the fairway.
He turned a sure bogey into an amazing par on the 13th. From a suspect lie in the bunker, 190 yards up the hill toward the green, his shot came perfectly and landed just over the back, although it sank to the bottom of the Bermuda rough and he could only chip to 20 feet. Woods saved par with a putt that curled in the right side on the final turn.
Then came the 5-wood to the par-5 15th that barely cleared the bunker and rolled to just over 4 feet. Woods saw grain moving to the left and the slope running toward the right. Confused, he caught the left lip of the hole and had to settle for birdie. On the 16th, he started walking to the green as the ball made its descent, knowing it was good.
But from just inside 4 feet, with spike marks in his line, he tried to jam it into the cup and hit the left lip again. Woods saved par with a downhill putt from 8 feet on the 17th, and finished with a bogey when he missed the green so far left the ball settled against the grandstand. With the green running away from him, he played a flop shot that came up a yard short and stayed in the rough.
“Today’s round probably could have been one or two better, for sure,” Woods said. “But overall, I’m very pleased with my scoring the first two days.”
Harrington missed his share of putts – from 6 feet on the 14th leading to bogey, and a 5-foot birdie chance he missed on the 17th. He was pleased to still be in the hunt for the Tour Championship, even as the FedEx Cup looks out of reach.
“I’m in good position as regards to the tournament, probably not the best position as regards to the FedEx Cup,” Harrington said. “It’s a little bit out of my control. But I’m looking forward to the weekend. I left a few shots out there toward the end, but overall, I knew there was another 36 holes to play. And I’ve got to make things happen at some stage.”
Woods and Harrington will be paired Saturday for the ninth time this year, five of those over the last two months. Harrington enjoys the company, even though Woods has gotten the best of him.
“You know you’re going to be in contention, and you know you’re going to have a chance of winning the tournament the more you play with Tiger,” Harrington said.