Published March 24, 2012
ORLANDO, Fla. – He looked like the Tiger Woods of old, making his way around Bay Hill with such ease that he putted for birdie on every hole and never came seriously close to anything worse than par.
And after a 7-under 65 for a share of the lead, he sounded like the Woods of old.
Even when he was winning with regularity, Woods never looked beyond the next round to the trophy presentation. But he could sense the feeling of inevitability from those seated in front of him Friday afternoon, so Woods on more than one occasion mentioned what was left.
"I want to win — yes, absolutely," Woods said. "We've got a long way to go. It's not like it's over right now. We've got 36 holes to go."
Woods ran off four straight birdies on the front nine, then put his name atop the leaderboard with a two-putt birdie on the 16th, followed by a 6-iron to 15 feet for birdie on the 17th.
Not long after Woods signed his card, Charlie Wi made four birdies on his last six holes for a 68 and joined him in the lead at 10-under 134. Wi has known Woods since their junior golf days in southern California — Wi is four years old and went to the same high school as Jerry Chang, who is Woods' best friend.
Wi doesn't recall ever being paired with Woods on the PGA Tour, although he recalls beating him once when Wi was 13.
"He was 9," Wi said. "I was outdriving him then."
Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell had a tournament-best 63, which featured an eagle-par-birdie finish, and was one shot behind along with Jason Dufner, who had a 69.
So much of the focus is on Woods, and that much hasn't changed.
His recent record alone — and not his six wins at Bay Hill — would be reason to believe that this tournament is not quite over.
It's the first time in 30 months that Woods has been atop the leaderboard at a PGA Tour event, going back to the 2009 Tour Championship, won by Phil Mickelson. More recently, Woods had the 36-hole lead at the Australian Open, only to struggle in the third round and rally on the last day to finish third.
He did win the Chevron World Challenge in December, which was meaningful to Woods, especially that birdie-birdie finish at Sherwood. Then again, it was only an 18-man field of players from the top 50 in the world.
"So it really has not been as long as people might think it has been," Woods said. "I'm comfortable up there, and I feel like I'm playing well. We've still got a long way to go. We still have 36 holes to go. Still need to continue doing what I'm doing out there, just kind of plodding my way along."
Woods at least is in better shape than he was two weeks ago. His future looked as muddled as ever when Woods was taken off the golf course in a cart at Doral because of soreness and swelling in his left Achilles tendon, the same injury that forced him to miss three months and two majors a year ago.
One week later, he was practicing at Augusta National. Now, he's the player everyone is chasing on the weekend.
"I saw him on television at Doral and didn't look good there," said Ernie Els, who played with Woods at Bay Hill, and played with him when Woods shot 62 on the last day of the Honda Classic. "Today he was on, and today was the same as I saw at the Honda — very on."
Woods only had a couple of nervous moments.
He ran off four straight birdies on the front nine to quickly get into the mix, and then couldn't decide how to play his tee shot on the 10th. It didn't help that earlier in the round, he looked over at adjacent first tee and saw Nick Watney — affectionately known as "Rube" — pipe his tee shot out-of-bounds to the right.
"I got over there and for some reason I'm thinking, 'You know, I probably really shouldn't hit this driver; I'll take something off of it, and just hit a little softy out there.' And bailed on it, because I didn't want to hit it right out-of-bounds," Woods said. "And I chalked that up to just not listening to my instincts of hitting a 3-iron down there or just chipping a 5-wood — or not watching Ruby hit that shot."
Woods was lucky. The snap hook bounced off a net fence protecting the houses, and he had just enough room to play to the middle of the 10th green and walk away with par.
He also was disgusted with his approach to the par-5 16th, turning in anger and swiping at the ground. It wasn't a great shot, but it was dry, catching the left side of the green 50 feet away and setting up a two-putt birdie.
Woods also had a two-putt birdie at the par-5 sixth. He made birdies on the other par 5s with his wedge game. Over two rounds, he has had such improved control of his play that he hit 19 consecutive greens in regulation at one point. That streak ended on the 13th hole Friday, when he two-putted for par from on the fringe.
Some of that is familiarity.
"I've had a few places where I've felt comfortable and I've played well, and this is one of them," Woods said. "For some reason, I just understand how to play it."
And some of that is becoming more confident with his swing, especially how far he is hitting the ball. Woods said he was not hitting his irons as well before going to work with Sean Foley, and a straighter, tighter ball flight has led to more distance — and more adjustments.
He felt as though he hit the ball better on Thursday in a round of 69, although he didn't have nearly as many birdie chances.
"My bad days are not as bad as they used to be," Woods said.
Woods had eight birdie putts inside 15 feet on Friday, compared with only five putts of that length on Thursday. He holed five putts longer than 6 feet on Friday, compared with only two on Thursday.
The best round came from McDowell, and it was a reminder of how far he has come in one year. McDowell had a dream season in 2010 by winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, winning the decisive point for Europe in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, then ending the year with a record comeback against Woods in the Chevron World Challenge.
McDowell had a hard time managing his time, much less his expectations, and the eye-opener was at Bay Hill last year when he shot 80.
This time, McDowell was 17 shots better.
"That 80 was a wake-up call, but I didn't wake up for another four months or so," McDowell said. "It was more of the panic button. It was a pretty awful four or five months for me.
"But like I say, I feel like you learn more from those types of experiences than you do from shooting 63 at Bay Hill. There's not much to learn out there except that if you play great and hole some putts, you can go low."
That's just what he did. And that's what someone will have to do on the weekend to win — including Woods.