DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Strong off the tee and hitting his shots with exquisite control, Tiger Woods seemed like his old self.
He turned in the day's best score with a bogey-free 6-under 66 Friday to surge into contention at the Dubai Desert Classic. The round put him four strokes behind leader Rory McIlroy and gave him every reason to believe he can for the first time in more than a year.
Woods was part of a powerhouse group that included top-ranked Lee Westwood and second-ranked Martin Kaymer. But on this day, Woods played as if he were unquestionably No. 1 again.
"It felt good today. I hit a lot of good shots," said Woods, who likened his game to the way he played at last year's Chevron World Challenge, where he lost in a playoff to U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell.
Woods, who has been outdriving his playing partners, added accuracy to his blistering drives and approach shots. And unlike Thursday, when he missed makable putts and hit approach shots wide of the green, the winner of 14 majors routinely gave himself chances.
He finished with six birdies and was at 7-under 137 entering the weekend at Emirates Golf Club. He won this tournament in 2006 and 2008.
"I felt like I drove it pretty good," he said. "I feel good. We worked out a few of the things last night that I didn't like."
McIlroy followed his opening 65 with a 68. This course brings out the best in the 21-year-old golfer from Northern Ireland, who earned his only European Tour victory at this tournament two years ago.
A shot behind at 10 under were Sergio Garcia (67) and South Africa's Thomas Aiken (67), followed by England's Steve Webster (68) at 8 under.
"I'm just concentrating on myself," McIlroy said. "I don't mind who plays well over the weekend or who shoots what score. As long as I go out and shoot the numbers that I want to, then that's the most important thing."
Woods was tied for fifth with Jean-Baptiste Gonnet of France, Anders Hansen of Denmark, Michael Hoey of Northern Ireland and Brett Rumford of Australia. Westwood (70) was at 5-under 139 and Kaymer (71) at 4 under.
McIlroy has struggled since winning the Quail Hollow Championship last year. He says he's approaching his game with more patience, and it seems to be paying dividends — he finished second in last month's Abu Dhabi Championship.
McIlroy bogeyed the par-4 second hole but had five birdies over his last 12 holes, including the 18th for the second straight day.
"I thought after the start that I had, I really hung in there and stayed patient and just sort of picked up my birdies when I could," McIlroy said. "I think I was 5 under from 7 onwards. So, really pleased with the round."
Westwood had four birdies but bogeyed two of his last four holes, missing two makable putts. Kaymer never seemed to get going. His three birdies in the first six holes were undercut by two bogeys.
"I didn't give myself enough chances," Westwood said. "It was just a plod round really, a bit of a boring day."
Westwood, who last year struggled with a calf injury, said his distance and control are not what they should be. It showed on approach shots that fell short, leaving him long putts on several holes.
"Distance control is poor when you are not striking it very well," he said. "I'm just playing for the fat of the greens really and trying to make a few long ones which I haven't, which is the reason I'm 5 under. Still in there with a chance."
Aiken, ranked 97th and known as much for his shoulder-length hair as for his swing, has 67s in the first two rounds.
"Missed one green the whole day and I was on the fringe and I got to putt," he said. "Just been putting the ball in the right positions, and these greens are so pure that you're going to sink some putts."
Garcia, once ranked No. 2 but now No. 79, has shown the consistency this week that had been lacking last year. He has had two bogey-free rounds.
"I think that probably putting has been the thing I'm doing the best these past three weeks," said Garcia, who had a top-10 finish in Qatar last week. "It's nice to see my game, my long game catching up with that."
Westwood could lose the top ranking if Kaymer wins and he finishes lower than second, and if Kaymer finishes second and Westwood is out of the top 10. If Kaymer is tied for second, he could still become No. 1 for the first time if Westwood finishes out of the top 36. Woods could move ahead of Kaymer if he wins and Kaymer finishes outside the top five.
Woods suspects he could do even better going into a weekend when stronger wind is forecast. Still, he relished his second round, calling his sixth hole emblematic of his day.
Woods drove the fairway on the 485-yard, par-4 hole and hit an 8-iron about 160 yards to a foot of the pin, where he made an easy birdie putt. Much as he did with a monster drive on 18 on Thursday that led to an eagle, the shot brought cheers from the crowd and a reminder of how good Woods can be when his game is on track.