Back on Track

March 24, 2007

MIAMI (AP) — With the Masters right around the corner and his putting stroke lagging behind, Tiger Woods stayed on the practice green for close to an hour after the first round at Doral in a desperate search for a solution.

With a 10-foot par that meant more to him than any of his six birdies, he found it Friday in the CA Championship.

The result was a familiar name atop the leaderboard at a tournament that has changed in so many ways.

Woods followed his key par with three straight birdies on his way a 6-under 66 for a two-shot lead over Rod Pampling, putting the world’s No. 1 player back on track for a third consecutive victory on the Blue Monster. (Woods and Pampling tee off today at 1:50 PM Eastern.)

“Any time you make big par putts, I think it’s more important to make those than birdie putts,” Woods said. “You don’t ever want to drop a shot. The psychological difference between dropping a shot and making a birdie, I just think it’s bigger to make a par putt. And I was able to make those.”

He spoke in plural terms because there were two of them. The 10-foot par on the par-3 ninth kept him from losing ground. The 10-foot par putt on the 18th hole kept his margin at two shots.

Woods was at 7-under 137 and will play in the final group Saturday with Pampling (69) a frequent practice partner at the majors.

“No dropped shots,” Woods said. “And under these conditions, I’m very proud of that.”

The conditions have been the biggest change at a tournament that has undergone a makeover. It’s now a World Golf Championship with 73 players from around the world, not 144 players from primarily the PGA Tour. Doral is being played at the end of the Florida Swing, instead of the first week in March.

But the biggest change is found on the scoreboard.

A year ago, the cut was made at 4-under par. Now, that’s good enough for third place, a group that includes Ernie Els (70), Henrik Stenson (73), Charles Howell III (71), Thomas Bjorn (72) and Trevor Immelman (68).

Woods’ 66 was the best round of the tournament, and another example of how strong wind and new greens that are unfamiliar to so many regulars at Doral has affected scoring. A year ago, Woods had a share of the halfway lead at 13 under.

Robert Allenby, who shared the first-round lead with Stenson, had a 74 and was in the large group at 3 under.

Woods had reason to be concerned with his putting after taking 32 putts in his opening round of 71. He stayed on the practice green into the twilight with his caddie, Steve Williams.

“I told Stevie what I was feeling and he told me what he saw, and we just kind of worked through it and finally got to the position where I could release the blade again,” Woods said.

He opened with birdie putts inside 3 feet and was stuck in neutral with a collection of long two-putt pars and simple saves. Then came the par-3 ninth, where he put his ball in the left bunker and blasted out 10 feet by the hole.

He made that to stay four shots behind, then found another gear.

Woods made an 8-foot birdie on the 10th after hitting into a greenside bunker, holed a 6-foot birdie on the 11th and made a 10-footer on the par-5 12th to surge into a tie for the lead. His final birdie in a bogey-free round came on the 17th, when he hit his tee shot into the right rough, still far enough that he hit wedge into about 6 feet.

His final act was the 18th, a scary hole with water down the left side the wind blowing to the right. He bailed out to the right – way right – leaving himself an approach through the skinny palms that came up just short. He chipped across the green to 10 feet below the hole, and made the par to give himself a two-shot cushion.

Woods took only 26 putts in the second round.

His record is intimidating enough – 26-6 with a 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour – especially at Doral.

But he will be playing with a scrappy Aussie he knows well.

Pampling first started showing up at dawn for practice rounds with Woods about three years ago, which Williams arranged.

“You just like to see the way he gets around the course,” Pampling said. “He’s pretty open with his information, and you have some fun out there. It’s nice to get in amongst the gallery early in the week and just get used to the huge numbers out there.”

Pampling also wonders if recent history plays into his favor.

Woods opened with a 64 last week at Bay Hill, but the rest of the week was a struggle, particularly the final round. Woods took two double bogeys and a triple bogey in a back-nine 43 that sent him out of the top 20.

“We certainly don’t rule ourselves out,” Pampling said. “I don’t think he’s going to have the weekend he had at Bay Hill, but it’s a golf course where you’ve still got be pretty strong off the tee and play some good shots. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but it’s still there. Maybe it’s something that’s fresh in his mind that someone gets near, he may actually feel a little bit of pressure for once.”

If not from Pampling, there remains plenty of candidates.

It’s hard to tell what Els is thinking, for he left the course without speaking, holding his daughter’s hand. Sergio Garcia had a chance to get into the final group with Woods until a double bogey on the 18th hole sent him to a 70, four shots behind.

“I need to go to the range,” Garcia said when he finally emerged from the scoring trailer.

Divots: Vijay Singh, the only two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year, had a 68 and was in the group at 2-under 142. Masters champion Phil Mickelson shot 72 and was at 5 over, not sure what’s going on with his game and not appearing to be overly concerned. … Thomas Bjorn was atop the leaderboard until he had a long wait when he made the turn. He four-putted from 45 feet for double bogey.