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Woods plays his way into final pairing

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Sand blew out of the waste areas. Claps of thunder boomed from ominous clouds in the distance. Play on the most difficult course in America twice came to a halt.

And when many of the contenders were sandblasted off the leaderboard Friday in the 94th PGA Championship, look who reappeared – once again – atop a major-championship leaderboard: Tiger Woods.

Driving the ball as well as he has all year, and continuing to pour in momentum-saving putts from virtually everywhere (save for a three-putt from 30 feet on the last), Woods was at his shotmaking-best in difficult conditions to secure a spot in the final group of a major for the second time this season.

This time, Woods is hoping the end result is a whole lot better.

“It was tough out there, wow,” he said after signing for a 1-under 71 in mild and blustery afternoon conditions, when the wind gusted to 30 mph and the round took more than 5 ½ hours to complete. “You can’t take anything for granted out there.”

Woods, ranked second in the Official World Golf Ranking, now has held at least a share of the lead at some point during each of the past three majors. At the U.S. Open, he shot 75-73 on the weekend and plummeted to T-21. At the Open Championship, he never diverted from his conservative game plan, and a few untimely miscues cost him a shot at an elusive 15th major championship.

Here on Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, Woods has demonstrated the kind of ball-striking prowess that largely was missing over the past two years, when he overhauled his swing with coach Sean Foley. Now, Woods said, “I’m swinging it well. The thing is, all year my strength has been my driving (ranks fourth in total driving on the PGA Tour). People probably don’t think so, but the stats – that’s what they are.

“I’ve been driving the ball well all year, and I’ve been putting streaky. Finally I’ve married the two together, and it’s working out.”

Indeed, there is no better tactician in the game than Woods, and when the forecast called for high winds – it blew 20 mph all day, steadily, with gusts even stronger on the holes closest to the shore – it gave him a distinct advantage. He hit high shots, such as his booming drives off the tee. He hit low shots, such as his stinger irons and fairway woods. Hooks. Cuts. Flops. Every shot in his arsenal.  

Said Keegan Bradley, the reigning PGA champion who was paired with Woods on Friday: “It was one of the best rounds I have ever seen.”

And Woods’ putter also began cooperating, unlike during the first two rounds of last week’s event in Akron. Here in Round 1, he needed only 22 putts to get around on these sticky Paspalum greens. On Friday, he took only 11 putts on his opening nine, eventually finishing with 26 total, and remained near the top of the rankings in that category. He was one of only four players to break par on the most difficult scoring day (78.10) in tournament history.

Said Woods, with great delight, “I just grinded my way around this golf course.”

At 4-under 140, Woods is in a three-way tie for the lead with Vijay Singh and Carl Pettersson, and will play in the final pairing Saturday with the Big Fijian, 49, who is vying to become the oldest major champion in history.

Pettersson (74), the leader after Day 1, will play with Englishman Ian Poulter (71), and world No. 3 Rory McIlroy and Jamie Donaldson are two shots off the lead.

In this age of parity, 16 different players have won the past 16 major championships – as if Woods, shut out of the majors since June 2008, needed any reminder in the gloaming Friday.

“I’ve been here before,” he said, smiling. “I’ve been in this position many times in my career. Again, we’re only at the halfway point. There’s a long way to go.”