ORLANDO -- As long spring shadows crawled across Bay Hill Club and Lodge on Friday, Tiger Woods retreated to the driving range for some overtime.
He dropped a bucket of balls on the tattered ground and began striking iron shots into the dusk. Like most of his swings on Friday, they were beautiful. Still, Woods felt he had more work to do.
Woods hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since September of 2009, and for a golfer who treats winning like the rest of us treat oxygen, that is a lifetime.
He has had nearly three years of close calls and blowout losses, improvements and backward steps, good health and injury.
And now, two weeks before the Masters, he is in the running again. He needs to finish the race.
“I want to win, yes, absolutely,” Woods said when asked if he felt like he needed to win. “We’ve got a long way to go. It’s not like it’s over right now. We’ve got 36 holes to go.”
After a seven-under-par 65 in which he hit 17 greens and used his putter for birdie attempts on every hole, Woods vaulted to the top of the leader board with Charlie Wi to take a one-shot lead over Graeme McDowell and Jason Dufner.
Few courses give Woods the comfort that Bay Hill does. He’s won six times here. He’s shot 64 three times here. He’s turned four 36-hole leads into three wins here.
While Woods insisted he struck the ball better during his first-round 69, his 65 on Friday was mostly stress-free. Woods made four birdies in a row between the fourth and seventh holes. When he got in trouble with pulled tee shots on No. 10 and No. 12, he still made par and birdie. Woods’s drive on the par-5 12th hole was so far left that he had no option for going for the green in two. When he found his tee shot in the rough, he walked to the ball, took 15 paces toward the fairway and then walked back to his ball.
“Give me the number to that fairway bunker, front,” Woods asked his caddie, Joe LaCava.
“Eight-five,” LaCava answered, indicating 185 yards.
Woods lofted an iron back to the fairway, struck a wedge to 8 feet and walked in the birdie.
“I just felt that even though my stuff wasn’t as good as it was yesterday, it wasn’t that bad, either,” Woods said. “And that’s the neat thing about what I’m working on with Sean [Foley], is that my bad days are not as bad as they used to be.”
For all of his improvement -- his stats and his strut indicate that it’s real -- Woods has yet to put four rounds together, the marathon by which a golfer is judged.
For most of his career, nobody ran the race better or closed with a more fierce finishing kick.
These days, something seems to go wrong somewhere along the way. A round with too many missed putts or one too many mistimed swings.
“I saw him on television at Doral, and he didn’t look good there,” Ernie Els said. “Today, he was on. Today, was the same as I saw him at the Honda -- very on.”
Els said he’s seen enough of Woods lately to place him among three favorites to win the Masters (he did not name the other two). He cited Woods’s experience and the height of his approach shots.
“He’s maybe not as long as he was back in the day, but he’s still plenty long enough, and he’s got the most trajectory for the second shots,” Els said.
The Masters will be here soon, but there is work to do this week first. On so many past weekends here, Woods weaved magic at Bay Hill, with Arnold Palmer standing on a hill and the sun going down.