ATLANTA (AP) Even after the lowest 9-hole score of his career sent Tiger Woods to a 63 at easy East Lake and a three-shot lead going into the weekend at the Tour Championship, no one was conceding him the trophy.
Least of all, Woody Austin.
Austin is a 43-year-old former bank teller who has little in common with Woods except they once were the PGA Tour rookie of the year, Austin in 1995, Woods a year later. A superb ball-striker, Austin is not afraid to call it as he sees it, even if it can be hard to understand.
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Take last month in Tulsa.
Woods seized control of the PGA Championship in the second round at Southern Hills when he tied a major championship record with a 63 despite making pars on the final three holes, the last one catching 270 degrees of the lip. Imagine his surprise when Austin said the following day that he actually outplayed Woods in the second round, even though Austin shot 70.
The latest episode came Friday at East Lake.
Austin put together his second straight round of 65, soured slightly by missed birdie chances inside 10 feet on the final two holes, and he was most disappointed by the prospect of Woods building a big lead.
Turns out it was only three shots.
Woods, who raised hopes of a 59 after shooting 28 on the front nine, settled into mediocrity with par golf on the back for a 63 and went into the weekend at 13-under 127, breaking the 36-hole mark at the Tour Championship and his best start since he was at 125 after two rounds at Firestone in 2000. He went on to win that event by 11.
"He's just hard to catch," Austin said. "He's not hard to beat if you're playing as well and you're right there. But if you let him get in front of you, like I said, he's hard to catch."
Not hard to beat?
It was a surprising comment considering Woods has won three of his past four events, twice coming from behind in the final round. And it was unusual to hear because Woods is 65 under par since the British Open. Plus, he is 29-6 on the PGA Tour when he has at least a share of the 36-hole lead. He hasn't spit up a weekend lead in three years.
It was reminiscent of Rory Sabbatini saying that Woods looked "beatable as ever" the week after Woods came from behind to beat Sabbatini in the final round of Wachovia. They played against each other again at Firestone, and Woods won again.
Told of Austin's comments Friday, Woods looked amused.
"Say that again?" he said.
When it was repeated, Woods finally replied, "I don't know how you answer that one."
Austin tried to clarify later by saying that Woods "can" be beat, and that much is true. He went on to note that Woods had a four-shot lead at the PGA Championship going into the last round.
"That's why he won," Austin said. "Anybody is hard to catch when they're playing great, especially if you happen to be the best player in the world. But in this game, anybody can be beaten on any given day. But if he starts five shots in front, it doesn't matter. You can't let him get that far out front."
Woods certainly had his chances.
East Lake is such a pushover that the Tour Championship scoring record of 17-under 263 (Bart Bryant in 2005) could fall. Woods took full advantage with an array of splendid shots, and a heavy dose of luck.
It began with an approach into 10 feet for birdie at No. 4. Then came a poor tee shot and an approach into the bunker, which he had hoped to get within 15 feet of the hole to save par. He blasted out over the lip, and the ball bounced three times before rolling into the cup.
"By the crowd's reaction, I thought it came screaming in there and hit the flag and ricocheted off and I had a 1-foot putt or something," Woods said. "I got up there and it was gone. Nice surprise."
Then came three more birdies inside 12 feet, followed by the par-5 ninth, where he reached the 609-yard hole in two shots, his ball on the other side of the green. Woods hammered it up the hairy slope, watched it move like it was on a slalom course, then bang into the back of the cup for a 70-foot eagle.
"Pure luck," Woods said. "If you could have been right behind the golf ball and see how that thing was bouncing all over the place, it was actually quite funny."
Steve Stricker played a solid front nine while paired with Woods and felt outclassed.
"I played pretty good," he said. "I was 2 under and I'm 5 down. You just start thinking, 'Jeepers, what just happened?' He's got a lot of offense, if you know what I mean. You're just waiting for that run of holes, and then he takes off."
But he's not gone.
Austin is only three shots behind, and five other players were within five shots of the lead. The group at 9-under 131 included Tim Clark (69), Mark Calcavecchia (66) and defending champion Adam Scott (66).
"Luckily for all of us, he kind of slowed down a little bit and kept a tournament of it," Scott said.
K.J. Choi shot a 65 and was another shot behind at 132, along with Sergio Garcia (64).
And while Woods nursing a three-shot lead and playing this well can be daunting, anything goes at East Lake, where the greens are slow and soft, and the pins are what players usually find in pro-am rounds to keep the hole away from the damaged edges of the greens.
Woods played that six-hole stretch in 7 under, although he didn't realize he shot 28 until he signed his card. Someone asked him to compare that stretch with the Masters two years ago, when he made seven straight birdies on his way to a 65 and a three-shot lead going into the final round.
"I liked the one at Augusta a lot more actually," Woods said. "That golf course is a little harder. I should correct that a lot harder."
He wound up winning that Masters in a playoff.