Tiger Woods followed a scratchy 71 on Thursday with an imperious, bogey-free, six-under-par 66 on Friday in the second round of the Dubai Desert Classic. And he did so sporting a lurid, fluorescent lime-green shirt. He must have got dressed in the dark for his early morning tee time. Woods is now tied for fifth at seven under par, four shots behind leader Rory McIlroy. Sergio Garcia continued his comeback with a 67 to be 10 under par and tied for second.
McIlroy picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Woods to shoot a four-under-par 68 in the ever-increasing afternoon breeze, but said Tiger's 66 never entered his head on the course. "This is the first I've thought about that all day," McIlroy said after his round. "I've never experienced being in contention with Tiger up around the top of the leaderboard. It's a challenge I'd look forward to it. It's nice to sleep on a lead."
As McIlroy set off on his second round, Woods was heading for the free buffet after posting his best round since a 65 in the first round of the Chevron World Challenge last December. He said that he gained momentum and confidence from his eagle at the final hole late on Thursday afternoon.
"I felt the two shots I hit down 18 was the way I know I can swing and I just tried to build on that on the range," Woods said, admitting also that he spotted and fixed a few faults while giving a clinic for schoolchildren after his first round. "I played myself right back into the tournament. I felt I hit the ball a lot better and the greens were absolutely perfect."
Woods won the battle of the Big Three, reminding World No. 1 Lee Westwood (two-under-par 70) and No. 2 Martin Kaymer (one-under-par 71) that Woods doesn't plan to hang around as No. 3 for too long. Woods will no doubt be delighted to have put his rivals in their place, but he had no time for gloating, at least not in public.
"The idea is to win the tournament, not two days," Woods said.
Westwood wasn't in the mood to rhapsodize about Tiger's game either. "Seemed like we saw the old Tiger today," a reporter said to Westwood. "You'll have to ask him," Westwood snapped before leaving in a huff.
It was not a good day for the Englishman, who finished with a bogey for the second day running and tossed his ball into the lake in front of the green after his round. But it is a testament to Westwood's doggedness that he kept his frustration under wraps (at least until after his round) to be five-under-par for the tournament. Kaymer is four-under-par.
Woods had so much more energy on Friday. There was a fluidity and rhythm to his swing, where on Thursday he was battling to control mechanical hiccups. His putting stroke was smoother too (most of the time) and his irons flew at the flags with more zip. Woods was understandably delighted with his "progression"his buzzword of the moment.
"I felt I drove it pretty good, but more than anything l really controlled my traj," he said. That's "trajectory" for those unfamiliar with the new Tiger edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
OK, so he's not Herbert Warren Wind, but Woods composed perfect prose to create a birdie at the par-4 sixth (his 15th), his standout hole of the day. He belted a drive 314 yards over the corner of the desert, then sent an 8-iron arcing into the azure Dubai sky to land softly for a tap-in three.
"To be able to hold up a driver like that and turn an iron in there to two feet, that was a well-played hole," Woods said. He always has been coy about his talent and enjoys making his most remarkable feats sound ho-hum. No hyperbole needed. Just old school Woods brilliance. Driving like that gains him an extra 10 yards in the air, he said.
When he gets it right, boy, you wonder how he ever gets it wrong. But that's the battle he's having with his revamped and rusty game. And he didn't escape without any trouble Friday. He messed up the eighth hole, again. On Thursday, he sliced left with his driver, got lucky, lashed a recovery from the desert and made par. Friday he played it safe with a 3-wood, but slammed it straight left. That ol' Tiger luck got him out of jail again, and he had a perfect lie on the sandy wasteland. He fizzed his ball with an iron under the branches of a palm tree, then sent it soaring like a jet taking off, drawing left, and landing safely at the back of the green. Genius. Par saved.
Woods's putter was showing more signs of behaving itself than it has of late as well. He rolled in a 20-footer at the fourth that looked like it was heading nowhere but underground the second the ball left the putter face. Woods knew it too, saluting it in the hole from four-feet out with a raised arm.
But there was still the occasional bout of insolence. Take the third. Woods set up a birdie chance from 10 feet with a flop shot from a grassy hollow left of the green that owes copyright money to Phil Mickelson. But just as he stood over the putt, a baby started crying. It was hard to tell if the noise broke his concentration, but he didn't step away from the ball. He missed the putt, swore, spat, shook his head, muttered under his breath and stomped to the back of the green before slamming the offending putter onto his bag. A blip on an otherwise perfect day.
A sterner battle for Woods's swings (driver and mood) will come with late tee times on the weekend when the gentle morning breeze that carried his 66 is forecast to be whipped up into a 30-mph desert storm. Woods went from a limp on Thursday to a swagger on Friday. Now we'll see if his game can go from a whimper to a roar.