Woods got off to a blazing start Friday and a solid putting stroke enabled him to play bogey-free in the second round for a 6-under 66 that gave him a four-shot lead going into the weekend of his final tournament this year.
Woods was at 13-under 131, his best 36-hole score this year by six shots. And the four-shot lead over U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell had to be a refreshing change for a guy who has been at least nine shots back through 36 holes in seven tournaments this year.
“I’ve been here before, so it’s not a strange feeling,” Woods said. “It’s just one of those things where tomorrow is the same game plan, just go out there and plot my way along and take care of the par 5s.”
He did that again on a pleasant day in the Conejo Valley, and now has played the five par 5s at Sherwood Country Club in 10 under through two rounds. That included an eagle on the second hole, and perhaps Woods’ most impressive shot of the day, if not the year. He hit a 4-iron from a hanging lie so severe that it caused Woods to stumble down the hill after impact.
The ball landed 8 feet away to the right of the pin.
And on the next hole, when Woods made a superb par save with a putter through a swale to about 3 feet, caddie Steve Williams walked off the green and said, “The tide is turning.”
McDowell keeps plugging away in his sixth straight week of competition, playing well enough to keep pace except for a few mistakes. He took a double bogey on the ninth hole, and failed to save par from a bunker on the 18th.
He was at 9-under 135, and will be paired with Woods in the final group Saturday.
“Sometimes in a four-round tournament, you get a round where you don’t really play your best,” McDowell said. “To shoot 3 under and not play my best, I’m pretty happy with that.”
Rory McIlroy played with Woods for the first time in competition – the Skins Game at the Memorial doesn’t count – and was impressed with what he saw. McIlroy caught flak at the Ryder Cup for saying he would love to play Woods if his game didn’t improve, although he doesn’t regret what he said – even Woods would agree with the “if his game didn’t improve” part – and both played well.
McIlroy only fell apart at the end.
He hit 5-wood on the par-5 16th that covered the flag and just went over the back of the green. On firm turf, however, he hit a thin chip some 20 feet away, narrowly missed the birdie putt, then watched his 2 1/2 -foot par putt circle the cup and stay out.
On the 18th, McIlroy hit 7-iron over the green, chipped long off the back of the green and had to two-putt from 35 feet for a double bogey that gave him a 70.
The real excitement came from everyone behind them.
Paul Casey made a hole-in-one on the 12th hole, which carried him to a 7-under 65. Bubba Watson made the rarest shot in golf – an albatross – when he holed out his second shot on the par-5 16th. That was the difference in his 69, although he was still 14 shots behind.
Anthony Kim also made a nice recovery, chuckling at a report on a golf blog that he might have another injury after opening with a 79.
“It’s as good as ever,” Kim said after a 66.
Woods still has two rounds to show true signs that he is on his way back, and he has kept it simple at Sherwood – attack the par 5s and limit the mistakes.
As if often the case with anyone at any tournament, however, the putting stood out the most.
Not only did he made some key par saves and two good birdie putts inside 12 feet in his great start – he one-putted the first four holes and two-putted for birdie on the fifth – he constantly ran the ball some 3 to 4 feet beyond the hole.
Woods attributed that to having too many putts above the hole, although there was a confident look to his putting that had been missing for so much of the year. He no longer looked concerned by facing those par putts, and it showed. Seven times, he ran a birdie putt at least 3 feet by the hole and made them all.
“I hit a lot of pure putts,” Woods said. “I wasn’t quite as sharp as yesterday, but I was able to piece it together and figure out how to hit better shots when I was struggling a little bit. I hit a couple loose shots and all of a sudden, ‘OK, this is what I need to do to fix it.’ And I fixed it. So that was nice.”
Still, he missed only two greens in regulation, and the closest he came to bogey was on the final hole when he ran his birdie attempt some 5 feet by the hole. He made that for a bogey-free round, a rarity this year.