ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Tiger Woods shot a 6-under 66 Saturday to grab a share of the lead at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, the latest sign that the 14-time major winner is returning to form after ending a two-year victory drought.
There wasn't a lot of fist pumping from Woods, who traded drama for consistency in racking up six birdies in a bogey-free round.
It was a memorable performance by the American, mostly for his ability to hit the fairways, tame the par 5s and sink clutch putts – including a six-footer for birdie on the final hole.
“It just seemed like I didn't do a lot of things right but I didn't do a lot of things wrong today, it was just very consistent,'' Woods said. “You know, made a couple putts here and there … I stayed away from trouble and tried to keep the ball towards the fat side of some of these pins and I think I did a pretty good job.''
Woods moved to 11 under for the tournament and is tied with newcomer Robert Rock, who birdied his final two holes to earn the 117th-ranked Englishman a first-ever pairing with Woods for Sunday's finale.
Rory McIlroy (68), Peter Hanson (64), Francesco Molinari (66) and Peter Lawrie (68) were two shots back, with George Coetzee (65), James Kingston (67), overnight leader Thorbjorn Olesen (71) and Jean-Baptiste Gonnet (69) all a shot further back.
Woods is attempting to follow his season-ending victory at the Chevron World Challenge with another win here. He was two shots off the pace after the second round but started climbing the leaderboard Saturday with an opening birdie, followed by another on No. 7.
He stepped up his game on the back nine and grabbed a share of the lead after he narrowly missed an eagle putt on the 10th and settled for birdie. He briefly took the outright lead with a birdie on 14.
The crowd of several hundred cheered every birdie, with some yelling “Tiger's back.''
Woods refused to talk about his victory chances, acknowledging too many players remain within striking distance.
“There's a ton of guys with a chance to win,'' Woods said. “You know, we have not separated ourselves from the field. The field is very bunched. I need to go out there and put together a solid round of golf, and I can't go out there and shoot even par and expect to win. I've got to go out there and go get it.''
Rock, who got his first European Tour win last year in Italy in a playoff with Sergio Garcia, admitted he was star-struck at the prospect of teeing off alongside Woods, calling him “the best guy I've ever seen play golf.''
The 34-year-old journeyman is relishing the chance to go head-to-head with one of golf's all-time greats.
“There's quite a lot of people out there (today) obviously following Tiger in the group in front of us. Hopefully we've got the same amount of people watching tomorrow, and we'll see how I cope with it,'' Rock said. “I just want to experience it. How many chances I'll get to do that, it's not clear.''
Rock was one of several players who challenged Woods for the lead after overnight leader Olesen fell back.
Lawrie, the 1999 British Open champion, showed some of the form he displayed at the Dubai World Championship in December, where he finished second. He made birdie on 10 and 11 to tie Woods for the lead, fell back with bogeys on 14 and 17 and then recovered to birdie the 18th.
Molinari and Hanson also bounced back from opening round 74s to move into contention. Molinari had five birdies on his back nine, while the 47th-ranked Swede had eight birdies in his round – including three on the last five holes – in a bogey-free round to finish with the lowest score of the day.
“It was one of those days where you have the best job in the world,'' Hanson said. “Struck it nice, made four easy birdies on the par 5s and then a few more, and it felt pretty easy somehow.''
U.S. Open champion McIlroy also is still in the mix, a day after he had two double bogeys, including on the 9th when he was penalized for brushing away sand in front of his ball. He only had one bogey to go with five birdies Saturday, but the 22-year-old Northern Irishman was forced to scramble several times to save par, including on the 18th when an errant drive went into nearby rocks and almost into a pond.
“I definitely felt today was a lot better than yesterday,'' McIlroy said. “I felt like I hit the ball a lot better. I feel that I made a couple of loose swings off the tee and obviously one on the last, and a couple others, but it's getting there. So hopefully I can just keep that going tomorrow and maybe get off to a fast start and put pressure on the guys in front of me.''
Top-ranked Luke Donald (73) is 11 shots behind Woods, with No. 2-ranked Lee Westwood (68) seven off the lead.