There was no limping into the weekend for Tiger Woods. In fact, he put on a near record-setting display at the U.S. Open that may have left the rest of the field feeling hobbled.
Pouring in birdies from distances great and small, Woods tamed Torrey Pines, shooting 5-under 30 over his final nine holes in the second round Friday to end at 2-under par. That was one stroke behind Stuart Appleby and tied with Rocco Mediate and Robert Karlsson.
"People always ask me, 'Who's the favorite?'" Mediate said. "Well, of course, he's the favorite. Of course he is. A lot of people said, 'Well, he's not going to win because he's had, whatever, a thousand weeks off. But he's different. It's not the same."
Playing in his first tournament since knee surgery after the Masters, Woods hardly looked like someone rounding back into shape, at least not at the end. He started on the back, and after an up-and-down nine holes, things turned around immediately.
He made five birdies and finished one shot off the U.S. Open record for lowest nine-hole score, last accomplished by Vijay Singh in 2003. He finished the day with a 3-under 68.
"I felt if I could play well, could get back to even par, I could get back into the championship," Woods said. "Then all of the sudden, I started raining 'em in from everywhere."
He will play Saturday with Karlsson, a 3-and-2 loser to Woods in a meaningless Ryder Cup match two years ago. Karlsson shot 1-under 70 for the second straight day to find himself paired with the world's best player.
"It's definitely a treat," Karlsson said. "But it could go the other (way) as well."
Appleby has the lead thanks to a 45-foot putt on No. 18 after hitting his approach out of a divot. He shot 70, and his final putt dropped 11 players more than 10 shots off the lead and sent them home for the weekend.
This will be the second time in 14 months that he's played in the final group of a major on the weekend. Last year in Augusta, he was paired with Woods in the final round and shot 3-over 75 to slide to seventh. He'll be working with a different game plan this time.
"It's just a matter of playing golf. He wants to go play golf, we want to go play golf," Appleby said. "And I'll be doing my best to accidentally throw a club towards his sore knee. It will be an accident, of course."
But really, how to stop what looks like an unstoppable march toward victory?
Woods is in search of his 14th major win and his first U.S. Open since 2002. His seven closest pursuers (OK, so Appleby isn't officially a 'pursuer') have combined for one: the PGA championship won by Davis Love III more than a decade ago.
Love, who had to qualify to get to this U.S. Open, shot 2 under in the morning and offered some of the first proof that good scores were attainable at Torrey Pines, the municipal course where Woods has won six times in the much tamer, regular-season Buick Open.
Padraig Harrington shot a 67 to make the cut at 3-over 145. Sergio Garcia shot 70 and was at 146. Later, Miguel Angel Jimenez shot the best round of the tournament, 5-under 66 to get to 1 under.
But that round came with very few still paying attention because the glamour group of Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott had been done for a while. Scott shot his second straight 73 and Mickelson shot 75. Both finished at 146, meaning Nos. 2 and 3 in the world will play together again Saturday in a pairing that will look hardly as glamorous as it did two days earlier.
"It was a tough day for me today," Mickelson said.
It started tough for Woods, as well. He three-putted his first green, an unwelcome reminder of the way he finished the first round Thursday. In fact, he made four bogeys on his first nine holes, more than nullifying an eagle he made on the par-5 13th after sticking the approach about 10 feet away.
"I was just hanging around, hanging around," Woods said.
Then, it happened.
He got a big break after an errant tee shot on No. 1 — his 10th hole — the ball going so far to the right that it avoided the ankle-deep grass and came to rest just inches from the cart path on a thin lie.
Taking free relief would have put him behind a tree, so Woods steadied himself and fired away with an 8-iron from 157 yards.
One birdie putt later, he was on his way.
"Whether you call it a zone or not, I got into a rhythm," Woods said. "I've been there before. I've had nice rounds like that. I was just trying to get back to even par. I just happened to make some putts. That was it."