SAN DIEGO — Prime time on the East Coast is happy hour in the west.
As Tiger Woods sauntered down the fifth fairway munching an apple at Torrey Pines on Friday, waves of exuberant fans flanking the fairway cheered lustily. It was 5:20 p.m., Woods had birdied three of his last four holes, and every man, woman and child, every hopeless fan and hardened skeptic, understood exactly what was happening.
Playing on a tender, surgically repaired left knee, and walking 18 holes for only the second time in the last two months, Woods fired a 5-under-par 30 on Torrey's front nine for a second-round 68. He finished at 2-under overall, tied with Robert Karlsson and Rocco Mediate one shot behind leader Stuart Appleby at the 108th U.S. Open.
"I felt that if I played well [on] that back nine I could definitely get back to even par for the tournament and I would be right back in the championship," Woods said. "And I started running them in there from everywhere."
And in so doing he turned this from a nice gathering on the bluffs into living history.
"Get his apple core!" someone yelled when Woods finished his snack on the fifth hole.
The crowd, estimated at 60,000, couldn't help itself. The world's most famous athlete was doing what it had paid to see, what it had seen so many times on TV, but now he was live, in every sense of the word. And he was doing it on less than two legs.
Woods has often said that Torrey Pines fits his eye, and never was that more apparent than on his second nine holes on Friday. He caught a lucky break on the par-4 first hole, where his tee shot came to rest just to the right of the cart path, in a perfect lie, from where he hit a 157-yard 8-iron to the green and made the birdie putt. Thereafter, he didn't miss a shot.
But while the world No. 1 was hitting driver and finding the fairways, No. 2, Phil Mickelson, Woods's playing partner , was swinging his trusty 3-wood and missing mostly left of them. Despite continuing to eschew driver off the tee, Mickelson hit a mere six of 14 fairways for the second straight day and shot a 4-over 75 to drop to 4-over for the tournament, six shots back of Woods and seven off the lead.
"I've got to hit balls in the fairway," Mickelson said after missing the short grass for the last time on the par-5 ninth hole and finishing his round with a deflating bogey. "When I do I'm able to play the course effectively. I'm able to make some birdies, make easy pars. When I don't, it's been very tough."
Adam Scott, the third member of the power threesome, shot his second straight 73 and also was at 4-over for the tournament.
Playing in easier conditions in the morning, Davis Love III and D.J. Trahan each shot 69 to get to 1-under overall, and were matched at that number by Lee Westwood (71) and Miguel Angel Jimenez, who fired the low round of the tournament, a 5-under 66.
Five players, including two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els and 2006 U.S. Open winner Geoff Ogilvy, were another shot back at even par, three behind Appleby.
The 18-hole leaders made a quick tumble off the leader board. Overnight co-leader Kevin Streelman made a triple-bogey 6 on the par-3 third hole. He committed two double-bogeys as well in carding a 6-over-par 77 that left him at 3-over total.
Eric Axley triple-bogeyed his first hole, dropping off the leader board even faster than Streelman, and the other overnight co-leader, Justin Hicks, was 6-over in his first eight holes.
With the co-leaders going in the wrong direction, Love and Trahan made the morning's biggest moves. That Trahan would play so well came as something of a surprise, given his mediocre record at the Buick Invitational, also played at Torrey Pines. Putting is usually his bugaboo, and this municipal course on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific is beloved more for its scenic views than its sometimes bumpy greens.
"I've never really looked forward to the Buick," Trahan said. "I've played it because I'm already on the West Coast. I took the attitude [this week] that this'll probably be my last time coming here, so I'd try to make the best of it."
Trahan took advantage of relatively calm conditions and an absence of wind in his first nine holes. He birdied the eighth and ninth to make the turn in 33, then played the back nine in even par. He missed a five-foot birdie putt on 18 to end his round.
Els, 38, won the Honda Classic earlier this year but has gone quiet since working with swing guru Butch Harmon. He won the U.S. Open in 1994 and '97, and despite some gripes about the greens late Thursday afternoon (after they had been trampled by most of the 156-man field) he liked his chances for a third title this weekend.
Of course he was speaking well before Woods made his move and reminded all in attendance that even though he's playing on a bad wheel, and this is not the same course he's won on in the past, golf is still golf, and Tiger is still Tiger.