LEMONT, Ill. (AP) — Three weeks into the four tournaments that make up the PGA Tour Playoffs, it’s not hard to figure out who’s playing the best golf, either from the playoff standings or the leaderboard at the BMW Championship.
Aaron Baddeley birdied three straight holes after a three-hour rain delay, then finished strong for a 6-under 65 on Friday to share the 36-hole lead at Cog Hill with Jonathan Byrd (69). Only a week ago, Baddeley was in the hunt at the Deutsche Bank Championship before he stalled at the end and finished fifth.
The group one shot behind includes Steve Stricker, who apparently isn’t satisfied with his first victory in 6 1/2 years. Stricker won The Barclays in round one, contended over the final two rounds outside Boston and looked as good as ever outside Chicago, stringing together three straight birdies on his way a 66.
And then there’s Tiger Woods.
It is difficult to ignore the world’s No. 1 player for several reasons, not the least of which is that he has won three times at Cog Hill, already has won five times this year and tied for second in his playoff debut last week at Boston.
The only surprise was how Woods posted his second straight 67 in the BMW Championship.
He made birdie on all three of the par 5s, but two of them can be classified as a bit of a fluke. Another birdie came from the back of a bunker when a butterfly kept getting in his way, and his final birdie to close within one of the leaders came from out of the rough.
It was a strange day for Woods, but he had few complaints.
“I started out hitting it just great,” Woods said. “I hit it up there within 10 or 12 feet on every hole starting out, and I made nothing. I felt so bad over my putts. All of a sudden, I lost my swing in the middle part of the round and I felt great over my putts. It’s just one of those weird things about golf.”
For all the talk about playoffs, there’s still a trophy to be won at Cog Hill.
That has not been lost on anyone – not Woods, who only talks about Ws, and certainly not Baddeley or Byrd, both of whom have won already this year on the PGA Tour.
Baddeley and Byrd were at 9-under 133.
Baddeley won his trophy in Phoenix, and he’s had a few chances since then. The most prominent opportunity was at Oakmont, when he went into the final round of the U.S. Open with a two-shot lead over Woods and shot 80 in the final round.
“You always like to go ahead and finish off the week with a win, but if you keep giving yourself opportunities, you’re going to win your fair share of events,” he said.
The Australian is a lock for the Tour Championship – the top 30 in the playoff standings advance to East Lake – and a victory in the BMW Championship would give him a chance to capture the $10 million prize for the FedEx Cup.
Byrd is a self-described bubble boy at No. 30, although he is cruising right along and thinking only about Cog Hill, not East Lake.
“I’m here to win this golf tournament,” he said.
Byrd almost let that chance get away from him when he bogeyed the eighth hole, failed to birdie the easy par-4 10th and the par-5 11th, then dropped another shot on the 12th. He told himself to stay patient and finish strong, then he promptly duck-hooked his tee shot on the par-5 15th and had to scramble for par.
But he did remain calm, he picked up birdies on the next two holes and wound up atop the leaderboard.
“I was proud of myself,” Byrd said. “I kept a good attitude and kept telling myself, ‘I’m going to finish strong.’ And I really didn’t miss a shot coming in.”
Woods missed plenty of them, particularly on the 600-yard ninth hole.
His drive went into the trees well right of the fairway. His second shot clipped a tree and sailed to the left rough on the cart path, behind more trees. Then he hooked an 8-iron from 171 yards in the rough, around the trees, to 15 feet for birdie.
“It’s all about the angles,” he said leaving the green, as if that was the strategy all along.
On the par-5 11th, Woods again went into the rough and his third shot to the green was woefully short, but anger turned to a sly smile when he drained a 40-foot birdie putt.
Stricker went toe-to-toe with Woods the last two rounds and matched him birdie-for-birdie, although his were far more conventional.
He walked off the green shaking his head at some of the birdies Woods was making, but his were impressive in their own right. He found the fairway and laid up on the ninth, then used the wind and spin on the soft greens to stick his wedge inside a foot. On the 11th, he again laid up short of the green and hit a wedge to 18 inches.
His only big error came on the fourth, when he misjudged the wind off the tee and went into the left rough blocked by trees. There was only one limb in his way, and Stricker figured he could go under it or over it.
“What are my odds of hitting that thing?” he said. “And sure enough, I hit it dead square and it fell straight down and into a worse lie. I hacked it up short of the green and didn’t get it up-and-down.”
But then came the strength of his game. Perhaps the most congenial guy in golf used to beat himself up over mistakes, but he is getting better at letting it go. And the fact he birdied five of the next seven holes was proof of that.