CHASKA, Minn. — The 91st PGA Championship isn’t over, it just feels that way.
On a gut-check day in tough, swirling winds, Tiger Woods put his stamp on this tournament and put his foot on the necks of his rivals. Three birdies in a row on the back nine helped Woods get to seven under and open a four-shot lead going into the weekend at Hazeltine National. You know what that means. Woods loses four-shot leads in major championships as often as the Internal Revenue Service sends out thank-you notes.
Asked if that lead in a major championship is any bigger when Tiger Woods has it, Padraig Harrington grinned and drew laughter with his answer: “Well, what do you think?”
Yeah, we think so. Woods is 8-for-8 when leading majors after two rounds. If Woods wins, it’ll be major No. 15 and will leave him just three behind Jack Nicklaus on the all-time list. That will excite the folks in Wisconsin, who could have a chance to see history made four majors from now when the PGA Championship ventures to Whistling Straits in Kohler.
“I was very pleased with my execution today, especially with this wind,” said Woods, who added a two-under-par 70 to his opening 67. “The wind was up today, changing directions and affecting putts. It was a very difficult day. I had to grind it out.”
Nobody does that better than Woods, who has a four-shot edge over Harrington, Vijay Singh, Brendan Jones, Lucas Glover and Ross Fisher. Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood are five shots back.
One three-hole stretch Friday may prove to be the signature moment of this tournament. After a lipped-out birdie putt at the 13th, Woods drove the green with a 3-wood at the par-4 14th, a 290-yard carry. He narrowly missed an eagle putt but made a tap-in birdie.
“It was a perfect 3-wood and carried onto the green,” Woods said. “I thought I made the putt, but I picked up one there and got two more.”
At the par-5 15th, he came to the tee with a three-shot lead, took a big swing and blistered a tee shot out of sight. Even Superman would’ve had to squint to see this one. Woods quickly picked up his tee after the shot, pursed his lips and began to stride away. You know how Tiger always twirls his club after a good shot? This twirl was extra hard, the equivalent of an Olympic ice skating triple toe-loop. He really, really liked it, and for good reason. It’s a 642-yard hole, and he had 276 yards for his second shot. Simple math says Tiger’s drive covered 366 yards. Downwind or just straight down, that’s big.
You were wondering if Woods really and truly has his A-game this week? That shot, down the middle of the fairway, should answer the question. If not, check out the next two.
First, Woods hit a 5-wood second shot that bounded hard and ran over the green into the rough near a bunker. Next, he faced an awkward chip from thick rough and was forced to stand with one foot in the bunker and one in the grass, gripping down on the metal shaft of his wedge. It was a dicey shot to a downhill pin position. Woods deftly chipped it and his ball stopped within a foot of the cup for a tap-in birdie. Three swings, three brilliant shots and an easy birdie. All you can say is wow.
Harrington tried to keep up with Woods. On the 15th, Harrington pulled his drive into the left fairway bunker and faced a 301-yard shot from an uphill lie. He rolled the dice and pounded a fairway wood out of the sand. He sent it high into the air, watched it bounce short of a greenside bunker, take a second bounce in the thick rough short of the green and roll to the middle of the green, pin-high, 15 feet from an eagle. It was a remarkable shot and sent a message to Tiger: you’re not getting away from me that easy.
“That’s one of the best shots I’ve ever seen,” Woods said later. “You could hear, he didn’t mis-hit that; he hit it flush out of an uphill bunker lie where you can’t use your legs to get any power and the chance of slipping is there. It was a pretty impressive shot, definitely worth the price of admission.”
Harrington’s eagle putt lipped out of the right side, so he too settled for birdie. That kept him within three shots of Woods and put him in sole possession of second place.
Woods wasn’t done yet. On the picturesque 16th, Hazeltine’s signature par 4, Woods rolled in a 20-footer for birdie, a putt that just barely toppled in over the right edge. Harrington had a putt on the same line, but his broke outside the hole on the left and he settled for par. With birdies at 14, 15 and 16, Woods was eight under and had a four-shot edge on Harrington and Lee Westwood.
Westwood dropped back when he doubled the par-3 17th hole, three-putting from three feet. Woods and Harrington gave shots back at the 18th when they failed to get up-and-down to save pars.
Not even Friday’s windy conditions, which affected the afternoon half of the draw much more than the morning half, could slow Woods down. Despite the calm early conditions, Phil Mickelson struggled, finishing at four over par. He made double-bogey 6 at the fifth hole to fall to six over for the tournament, and he needed an eagle at the par-5 seventh to shoot his second consecutive 74. He was in danger of missing the cut, but the wind helped him out. He made a charge up the leader board after he finished, ending up in 62nd place and making the cut on the number.
Ian Poulter, another early finisher Friday, shot 70 to get to two under par and was glad to get off the course as the wind strengthened in the middle of the day. “It got very interesting the last hour,” Poulter said. “That wind definitely picked up 10 or 15 miles an hour. It will be some good viewing from my armchair this afternoon.”
As a true sportsman, Poulter refrained from cackling. Besides Harrington and Woods, there was a mix of the usual suspects and some surprises.
No surprise was Vijay Singh, who backed up his opening 69 with an even-par 72. “These conditions don’t favor anybody,” said Singh, a two-time PGA champion. “Not even me. If it blows like this, it favors whoever is hitting the ball the best and putting the best. So you have to go out there and hit it solid.”
Also at three under was Fisher, who briefly took the lead from Tom Watson early in the British Open’s final round at Turnberry; Jones, whose main claim to fame in America was losing to Tiger Woods in the WGC-Match Play’s first round in February; and Glover, who won the U.S. Open at Bethpage.
Glover has made 10 birdies in two days. “I’ve played my best golf on hard courses this year,” said Glover. “I’m just driving it good and putting well.”
Jones, 34, an Aussie who has won eight times on the Japanese tour, where he plays most of his golf, is a good wind player and took advantage of the difficult conditions to shoot 70 and tie Singh. Jones eagled the short par-4 14th when he drove the green with a 4-wood and sank a 15-foot putt. He played with Steve Marino, who chipped in for eagle just before Jones putted.
“That one at 14 was a bonus,” said Jones. “I grew up on the south coast in New South Wales and it’s very, very windy there. I feel pretty comfortable in the wind. The harder it gets, I pride myself on toughing it out in tough conditions.”
Grant Sturgeon, an assistant pro at Oakmont who played college golf at Louisville, made the cut and was the low club professional at even par after rounds of 73-71. He called his boss, Oakmont head pro Bob Ford, for some last minute advice. “Bob said, ‘Swing hard and hope you hit it,’ ” Sturgeon said, laughing. “That was about as deep as we got into strategy.”
Sturgeon was more fortunate than those players who won’t be sticking around for the weekend. Those include John Daly, who shot 78 Thursday and withdrew, citing back pain. Adam Scott birdied the 18th hole Thursday to shoot 82, then backed it up with a 79 on Friday. Scott looks completely baffled by his swing, and at this rate may be left off the International side for the Presidents Cup in October. European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie posted 78 and ballooned to nine over par.