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Woods shows grit at U.S. Open and heads to weekend tied with Furyk and Toms

Tiger Woods, Friday, 2012 US Open
John Biever / SI
Woods has been precise at Olympic Club.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Tiger Woods wore black on Friday. That was the appropriate color for this U.S. Open’s second round, which took on a funereal feel as Olympic Club continued to beat down, beat back and beat up the world’s finest golfers.

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It was no surprise that the tough conditions left Woods (70) tied for the lead at one under with David Toms (70), a straight-hitting veteran, and Jim Furyk (69), a lunch-pail golfer originally from Western Pennsylvania. Only seven players broke par on Friday. Hunter Hamrick, who plays college golf at Alabama, shot 67. Steve Stricker shot 68, and five others shot 69.

Feels like old times, doesn’t it? Tiger has the lead in a major championship. Your sense of been-there-done-that is justified. Woods has led or been tied for the lead after 36 holes in nine previous major championships. He won eight of them.

In the old days of Tiger’s reign, we’d already be handing him this trophy, but this Open isn’t his to lose just yet. He’s got two former major champions right there with him. Furyk won the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, and Toms famously edged Phil Mickelson in the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. And don’t forget 2010 U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell, who’s a mere two shots back with John Peterson, Michael Thompson and Nicholas Colsaerts. Tiger’s competitors are top shelf.

This could be a pretty good weekend.

“It’s a wonderful place to be, with a chance to win your nation’s Open,” Woods said. “I think I’m in a good spot. I’m looking forward to it.”

Related Photos: Tiger on the cover of Sports Illustrated

Woods was impressive in his Memorial win two weeks ago and his Bay Hill win in March, and he’s been impressive here. He’s played six straight competitive rounds looking like the consummate shotmaker of old. If you don’t think he’s back, you haven’t been paying attention. How well his putter performs is still to be determined, but this new incarnation of Woods looks awfully formidable.

A lot of observers won’t consider him all the way back until he wins a major championship. (His last was the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.) Woods knows that, and he knows people have been wondering what’s taken him so long to get his game shaped up with coach Sean Foley.

“It was a tough year last year, battling those injuries,” Woods said. “It’s hard to get repetition and get momentum when I can’t practice. This year, I’ve played well in spurts, and I finally put it together at Bay Hill, lost it there for a little bit, and then put it together at Memorial.

“It’s better than what I had at Bay Hill. I’m able to shape the ball better with better trajectory control than Bay Hill. And that’s one reason I was so excited how I played at Memorial.”

He continued to impress Friday, grabbing the spotlight early. He bounced an 8-iron shot to five feet for a birdie at the third hole, which gave him the solo lead at that point because first-round leader Michael Thompson had already posted a bogey and a double bogey in his first four holes.

Then came the kind of adversity that Opens always bring. Woods missed a four-foot par save after a good bunker shot at the fifth. His approach stuck in thick rough just above the greenside bunker at the sixth, where Woods had to take a stance in the sand and choke way up on his wedge. He carefully popped the ball up in the air, but it ran 20 feet past the pin. He made a second straight bogey.

At the seventh, Woods made the kind of blunder he doesn’t usually make. He drove it into the greenside bunker at the short par 4, a good play, and hit a decent shot to about eight feet. It was a quick putt, however, and his attempt powered off the lip and raced six feet past. He lipped out the par putt, too, for a third straight bogey.

Woods regrouped on the back nine. He earned one of the day’s loudest roars when he rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt at the 10th, raising his putter in the air even before the ball dropped into the cup. He stiffed a 7-iron shot to five feet at the par-3 13th and made birdie to get back to even par for the day and into a share of the lead with Furyk at one under.

Woods actually had a chance to separate himself from the field at the end. He settled for par when he didn’t get up and down from a greenside bunker at the 610-yard par-5 16th. At the par-5 17, his second shot rolled over the back of the green and ran 40 yards down a slope. He made a great chip to give himself a birdie chance but couldn’t convert the putt. At 18, despite having a short iron in his hands, he dumped his second shot into the front bunker and saved par after a nice sand shot.

“My two best swings I made all week, I ended up in terrible spots,” Woods said. “I flagged it at 6 today. It was a beautiful little soft 4-iron from about 230 yards. I took something off it and held it up against the wind. It was right at the flag, then it hops left. If it goes in the bunker, it’s an easy up-and-down. All of a sudden, I’ve got no lie, and I struggled to make bogey.

“Then I hit another beautiful soft 4-iron up in the air on 17. I thought I threw it high enough to land soft, and evidently, I didn’t.”

Related Photos: Sports Illustrated's best shots from the U.S. Open

Those shots were indicative, Woods said, of just how tough the course played Friday. There was a bit of moisture in the course in the first round, he said, but in the second round, the Olympic Club dried out and got scary firm and fast.

“Tomorrow’s supposed to be the hottest day, almost 80, so it depends on whether Mike Davis and his staff put a little water on this course,” Woods said, referring to the USGA’s course setup man. “We’ll be going off a little later, too. It will be interesting to see if they make it scoreable, or if they’re really going to test us.”

Tiger’s playing partners felt more than tested. Phil Mickelson died a 12-foot putt into the cup for birdie on the final hole and made the weekend. He shot 71 and is at 147, seven over. Bubba Watson needed to birdie the last hole to get to eight over and make the cut on the number, but he made par from the bunker.

“It was a rough day for those two guys,” Woods said. “If you’re a touch off, which they both were, it doesn’t take much. They just couldn’t get any momentum going.”

Woods will be paired with another familiar face on the weekend, the 42-year-old Furyk. He’s just the kind of gritty player who knows how to get it around a tough track with precise play, strategic shots and key putts. He knows full well that Olympic Club is as nasty as any Open site since Oakmont in 2007.

“Oakmont is a drastic course even on a day-in, day-out basis,” said Furyk, who slipped in three birdies Friday. “The rough there was really penal, some of the worst Open rough I’ve ever seen. The rough isn’t as difficult here, but the fairways are tougher to hit because of the pitch and the slope. The scores at Oakmont and Winged Foot were in the five-over-par range to win, and if this course continues to get tougher and firmer, I could see that as a possibility.”

In other words, don’t turn on the TV this weekend if you want to see birdies and eagles, folks. This Open is going to be about pars and guts and smarts. That will make opponents such as Furyk and Toms and McDowell dangerous.

McDowell grinded hard to salvage a 72 and remain near the lead, and he said he feels comfortable in the San Francisco area, given its proximity to Pebble Beach, where he won his Open.

“It’s similar in that level par is going to be close to winning this week again,” said McDowell, the Northern Irishman who was the hero of the last Ryder Cup. “The similarity is the breeze coming in off the Pacific Ocean that has the same kind of chill and same heaviness to it. It’s a different golf course, though. Pebble was so short, you really had to be disciplined coming into the greens. This is a bigger golf course require a lot more big shots.”

Nothing underscored Olympic Club’s fierceness better than what it did to the world’s top three players. Luke Donald, No. 1 and fresh off his big win at the BMW PGA Championship, finished at 11 over par. Rory McIlroy, No. 2 and the defending U.S. Open champ, had another tough day and was 10 over. Lee Westwood, No. 3, fired a 72 to fall back to five over par. Unlike his playing partners, Westwood made the cut.

The three stars still had no explanation for what went wrong. “You really have to be precise out there or you’re going to get punished,” said McIlroy, who improved to 73 after a first-round 77.

Added Donald, who posted 72, “If you ever want to make a course tougher, you get the greens firm. We don’t play many courses that are this firm, not even close.”

Nick Watney shot 70 in an opening round that featured a double-eagle 2 on the par-5 17th hole. He followed that up with a second-round 74, a pretty good score considering he was six over par through his opening nine.

“I guess the difference was that I didn’t make an albatross,” Watney joked. “Yesterday, it was very, very firm, kind of like playing Ping Pong. Today was like a boxing match or something. For me, the course definitely won this round.”

One of the day’s other highlights was amateur Beau Hossler, 17, a high school senior from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. He had a nice run on the front nine and actually grabbed the Open lead by himself after Woods hit that stretch of bogeys.

Hossler couldn’t hang on, though. He fell back with a double bogey at the fourth hole when he drove into the trees, chipped out and then missed the green right, short-siding himself. He followed that up with two more bogeys before stopping the bleeding with a nice birdie at the short seventh hole.

Related Photos: Tiger's career at the U.S. Open

Hossler, who plans to play college golf at Texas, wasn’t able to save par from the bunker at the par-3 eighth, his final hole. He shot 73 to finish 36 holes at three over par.

“I am really glad how I played the last couple days, but I’ve got a long way to go,” said Hossler, who said his goal for the week was to be the low amateur.

Asked what he would’ve said if someone had told him before the tournament that he’d be leading the U.S. Open during the second round, Hossler grinned and answered, “I would probably tell them they’re nuts.”

At least there was one player smiling Friday night after 36 holes at Olympic Club.

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