DORAL, Fla. – Tiger Woods was starting to pull away with six birdies over a span of eight holes. Phil Mickelson, on the other side of the golf course, caught up to Woods briefly when he started his second nine with four birdies in five holes.
And that's when Graeme McDowell decided to ruin the reunion on the Blue Monster.
Woods and Mickelson have staged some memorable battles at Doral, twice playing in the final group together on the weekend. They bring out the biggest crowds, and the loudest. This was Friday in the Cadillac Championship, and the anticipation was building.
McDowell stepped in, telling caddie Ken Comboy, "Let's spoil this party." He birdied his last two holes to break up the Woods-Mickelson pairing.
"I'm sure they would have liked Tiger and Phil in that last group tomorrow," McDowell said. "Would have been great for the tournament. But I certainly will enjoy the position of being in the last group and the mix. That's right where I want to be."
Woods is where he expects to be.
He had a 7-under 65 and set a personal record with 17 birdies in two rounds at Doral for a two-shot lead over McDowell, who had a 67. Mickelson couldn't keep up at the end, dropping a shot at No. 7 and failing to birdie the par-5 eighth. The consolation was a 9-iron that came inches from going in for an ace on the par-3 ninth hole, giving him a 67. Mickelson was three shots behind and will play Saturday with Steve Stricker, who also had a 67.
Woods and McDowell for a final group on a Saturday afternoon outside Miami isn't bad, either.
They played in the final round at Bay Hill last year, when Woods pulled away in hard, crispy conditions. McDowell closed out a dream 2010 season by doing the unthinkable when he rallied from a four-shot deficit in the final round to beat Woods in the Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood.
"The intimidating thing about playing with him is what goes on inside the ropes, and it isn't him," McDowell said. "He's an incredible guy to play with — very sporting, always complimentary. And like I say, I've played with him enough now to feel comfortable. It's more the environment that goes on inside and outside the ropes. A little louder. A little busier. And that's really what I've learned to understand and control and deal with and kind of get acclimatized to.
"But end of the day," McDowell added, "it really doesn't matter who you're playing with. You're playing against the golf course."
It only feels like everyone else is playing against Woods.
He is a three-time winner at Doral and has put on a clinic in just about every aspect of his game. Woods is keeping the ball in the short grass off the tee, allowing him to generate spin to keep it somewhere near the hole on the greens that are firm and fast. And after that putting tip from Stricker on Wednesday, he looks good as ever.
The result is a 13-under 131, his lowest 36-hole on the PGA Tour since the 2009 AT&T National at Congressional.
Woods might not have guessed that when he left the practice range Friday. He described his swing as "sporadic," and his suspicions were confirmed when he had to struggle for par on the par-5 opening hole, the easiest at Doral. He hit a poor approach from the middle of the second fairway. He hit what Woods described as a halfway decent shot into the third hole that gave him some hope.
And then, he hit the shot that changed everything for him.
"All I need is one shot," he said. "And as soon as I feel it on one, I can pretty much carry through. And I did that today."
It was a 4-iron on the par-3 fourth hole, the toughest on the Blue Monster.
Woods hit a bullet with a slight fade at the left edge of the green and heard the crowd cheer as the slope and the grain took the ball to within 4 feet for birdie.
And just like that, he was on his way.
He made six birdies over the next eight holes, the stretch ending with another 4-iron on another tough par 3, this one a high, soft fade that settled 15 feet away for birdie. Despite a late mistake, he never lost the lead after that.
As for those 17 birdies, breaking his personal best of 16 in the 1999 Byron Nelson Classic?
"It left me a two-shot lead," Woods said.
And there are plenty of big names right behind him.
Masters champion Bubba Watson recovered from a shaky back nine for a 69 and was at 9-under 135 with Freddie Jacobson (69). Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel also had a 65 and was five shots behind, along with former PGA champion Keegan Bradley, who had a 68.
Mickelson also wanted in that last group with Woods, especially with his track record against him over the last five years. He was happy with his game, though, coming off a two-week break, with a detour to Augusta.
"There's something very spiritual about playing Augusta if you love the game as much as I do, and going there gets me fired up," Mickelson said.
Rory McIlroy showed signs of turning the corner with a 69, although he ended with a sloppy three-putt bogey. It was his first round under par this year, a small consolation for the world's No. 1 player. He was still 11 shots behind Woods.
"You go through these periods in golf where you just have a tough time and things don't click right away," McIlroy said. "It's understandable. It would be great if it wasn't like that, and it would make the game a lot easier. I'm pleased with today."