PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The days are long gone when you can cede Tiger Woods a victory after 54 holes, let alone 36 holes, or even assume anything about how he will play the next day.
That said, there may be only one thing you really need to know about the Players as the PGA Tour's flagship event heads to the weekend with Tiger sitting at 10 under par, a shot behind Sergio Garcia and just ahead of glittering pursuers such as Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar, Webb Simpson and Jason Dufner, among others.
Tiger already has three victories this year, his game appears stronger and more solid than at any time since the mid-2000s and he looks healthier, sleeker and more golf-ready than he has in years.
Here comes the punchline: Asked after Friday's round if there was any part of his game he wasn't pleased with, Tiger smiled ever-so-slightly and answered, "No, I'm pretty pleased with where it's at right now."
Later, asked to identify one part of his game he was happiest with, he reiterated, "I'm pleased with every facet of it."
Rory McIlroy was a wee teenager when Tiger was in his dominating prime, but those with longer memories will recall that on the few occasions Tiger was willing to admit he was playing well, he was actually playing fantastically. Those were the weeks he won going away.
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Yogi Berra won't tell you this is "déjà vu all over again," but make a note.
"I'm driving it well, hitting it well with my irons, my distance control is good, my short game is really solid and I'm making my share of putts," Tiger said.
Uh-oh. What's left? Not sticking his tee into the ground as easily as he'd like? Not finding the ball marker in his pocket as quickly as he used to? Not tying his shoelaces too neatly?
Roberto Castro got the Players off to a flying start with an opening 63 on Thursday. By Friday morning, the focus shifted to Tiger. That's the best break a tournament can get.
Even better, despite back-to-back 67s, Woods isn't running away with this thing. Just when the tournament's temperature rose a couple of degrees after Tiger ran in a 20-foot eagle putt on No. 2, his 11th hole of the day, to briefly take the lead. Garcia, playing in the group ahead, was on a run of five straight birdies en route to a final-nine 31.
Garcia capped his round with an eighth birdie at No. 8, the long par 3, for 65. Meanwhile, Westwood pitched in for eagle at No. 11, his second hole, then birdied the next two holes and shot 66 to move into third with Kevin Chappell, two shots behind Garcia after the morning wave finished.
There was also Ryan Palmer, who chipped in for eagle at the par-5 9th and 11th holes, and shot 69. Playing with Woods, defending champion Matt Kuchar birdied three of his last four holes for 66 to finish at seven under.
This just in from Captain Obvious: It looks like we are in for a terrific weekend at the Players.
The Stadium course isn't typically the kind of track where players can run away and hide, although it has been done. See wins by Stephen Ames (2006) and Henrik Stenson (2009). The spotlight will be on Tiger this weekend, but it appears as if he's going to have plenty of heavy-hitting company.
You may be tempted to dismiss Garcia, who had a long spell of indifferent play after his 2008 sudden-death win over Paul Goydos, but that would be a mistake. The Spaniard has been steadily improving, and you may have forgotten that he won the Wyndham Championship last August. Also, the Stadium course is his favorite playground. He's got a win, a second and a fourth at TPC Sawgrass, and no one has won more money in the Players than Sergio, who has pocketed more than $3.2 million. Even during his down period, he was able to drop in a closing 65 and finish 12th in 2011.
"I've managed to play quite decent on this course," Garcia said. "Any good thing you can get in your head is obviously positive."
The two things that spurred his temporary slide were his attitude and his putting. His attitude has improved, and he has gradually gotten better on the greens since he went to a claw grip three years ago.
A look at his Friday card showed how effective Garcia was with the putter. His birdies at 16 and 18 were from seven and nine feet, respectively. He made five birdies in a row starting at the 2nd hole. The respective lengths of those putts were 15, 7, 8, 19 and 26 feet. He plowed home a 40-footer at the 8th. He had 26 putts on Thursday, 25 on Friday. When Sergio is making putts, he ranks among the world's best players.
"A couple of tee shots here and there I would have loved to hit a little better, but other than that it was nice," Garcia said. "It was a wonderful day."
Westwood, the Englishman who transplanted his family to Florida last winter to better acclimate his game to U.S. courses, is another sort to be reckoned with. He was ranked No. 1 in the world less than two years ago and is one of the game's most consistent ballstrikers. Even though he famously skipped the Players in 2009 and 2011, he claims to be a fan of the Stadium course.
"I love the course, always have," Westwood said. "It's always suited my game and I've played pretty well around here. I had a few chances when it was played in March and in May. It's a course I always feel like I can see a way around."
Westwood finished fifth and sixth in 1998 and '99 and was fourth three years ago after opening with 67-65. So he knows how to go low here, which he proved again with his 69-66 start.
Westwood is sporting a goatee of sorts. It came about, he explained, because he dived into his swimming pool and scratched his nose, lip and chin so badly he couldn't shave for a week. "I just thought, What the hell? Try to look like you but a bit lighter," he said with a laugh.
More contenders are sure to surface, but Woods will soak up most of the attention on Saturday. It seems just like old times. He's dominating the par-5s — he's eight under through two rounds. He failed to birdie the 11th on Friday but eagled the 2nd to make up for that missed opportunity.
His chipping and pitching and wedge play has been mostly superb, not counting a flubbed chip that led to his only bogey on Thursday, at the 18th. He has kept the ball in play off the tee, using mostly three- and five-woods. And he has smartly managed his game, careful to miss greens in the right places so he still has a chance to get up and down.
En route to making eagle at the 2nd hole, he got a break after pulling his tee shot. He dropped his club in disgust, the ball caromed off a tree and back into the fairway. He deposited a five-wood shot onto the green and made the putt. His 134 total is six shots lower than his best start in this event.
"Well, that's good and bad, isn't it?" Woods said. "Evidently, it wasn't very good when I won here in '01 but the scores are so bunched. The cut is at one under right now, and there are 78 or 79 guys under par. That's incredible on this course. All the par-5s are reachable. The ninth normally isn't, but it's blowing downwind so you can get to it."
Owning a spotty record here doesn't faze Woods. He has a champion's selective memory.
"Even though I haven't played my best here, I've won on this course," he said. "Actually, I've won here twice, technically."
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Woods picked up the first of his three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles at the Stadium course, in 1994.
"The key is, you just have to come here playing well," Woods said. "I thought what I've done so far this year and been pretty good and better than most."
That line brought light laughter from the assembled media members. It was a reference to the call made by NBC announcer Gary Koch of a long, twisting, putt Woods famously sank on the par-3 17th green in 2001.
It also describes his start so far, the way he's playing and his chances of winning this week: Better than most.