GULLANE, Scotland — Players walk past a hulking grandstand behind the ninth green as they make their way to the 10th tee, and fans have a great chance to get an up-close look. In the case of Tiger Woods, who had just hit five mostly indifferent shots while failing to birdie the middle of three par-5s at Muirfield, they must have wondered exactly what they were seeing — the eventual winner of the 142nd British Open, or a guy who will quietly fade away on the weekend?
"I'm in a good spot," said Woods, whose even-par 71 on Friday included a birdie at the 18th hole, but also a missed two-foot putt at the fourth. He goes into the weekend 2-under par and well within striking distance of the leaders.
A good spot. What do we make of that? He's been in other good spots at the majors over the last five years, getting within a few strokes of the lead or even in the lead through two rounds. Each time he's fallen down the board, sometimes way down. Woods used to be as predictable as gravity, but now he's more like the weather.
"He was very, very impressive the last two days," said Graeme McDowell, who a day after shooting a disappointing 75 matched Woods with a 71. "He will not be far away this weekend the way he's playing. Iron play, the flight control that he has on his irons, he just hits the shot that you're supposed to hit at all times."
Woods is 37 and 14 majors into his career, four short of Jack Nicklaus' all-time mark of 18. Woods is 78 PGA Tour victories into his career, and closing in on Sam Snead's all-time mark of 82. That's a lot of success, but it's also a lot of mileage, and as he addressed the media after his round Friday, you could see him intermittently adjusting his stance, presumably to keep that balky left knee from locking up, but who knows? It could also be his lower back, or his Achilles'. His aching left elbow, which started hurting at the U.S. Open and kept him out of last month's AT&T National, has apparently made a full recovery.
His game is similarly unpredictable. Woods won the Players Championship in May, but was an also-ran at the Memorial (T65) and the U.S. Open (T32).
"Just continue plodding along," he said when asked what he has to do to win this weekend. "Just continue being patient, putting the ball in the right spots and trying. We're not going to get a lot of opportunities out there, but when I have, I've been able to capitalize, and hopefully I can continue doing that."
A day after Phil Mickelson and Ian Poulter said the greens were at times too baked-out and too fast, players in the morning reported slower, softer surfaces. Woods had the gaffe at the fourth but kept his round going with several nice par saves, best among them at the 10th hole, where he misjudged the speed and watched his birdie putt roll roughly 15 feet past the cup.
"I was having a hard time… trying to hit the putts hard enough going up the hills," said Woods, who made three birdies and three bogeys. "But then toward the middle part of my round I lost the pace and was blowing it past the hole. But I finally got it fixed at the end."
"He's putting exceptionally well," McDowell said. "I lost count of how many eight-, 10-, 15-footers he's made for par over the last two days."
Woods hasn't hit one tee shot with his driver, but surprised reporters when he said he'd hit, "I believe, about eight or 10." Pause. "On the range." (Laughter.)
If Woods is a stock, are you still in a buying mood? And if so, is that like jumping back into Apple or General Motors? Henrik Stenson shot 70 and is also 2 under. Lee Westwood shot 68 and was at 2 under. After everything we've seen over the last five years, is the "2" by Woods's name still a brighter shade of red?
Louis Oosthuizen, the third member of the Woods group, bowed out with a neck injury Thursday, leaving only a two-ball for most of the first round and all of the second. McDowell said at times he found himself getting caught up in Woods' game to the detriment of his own, but when he was reminded that he's won more majors than Woods has over the last five years — the 2010 U.S. Open — he laughed and said, "Hadn't thought about it that way. Maybe I should have."
Miguel Angel-Jimenez is in a good spot, as are Dustin Johnson, Angel Cabrera, Stenson, Westwood, Zach Johnson, Martin Laird, and a bunch of other guys, Woods among them. That's the difference between now and then. No matter how good Tiger looks — "I'm not sure there's a better iron player in the world," McDowell said — and no matter how big his press scrum still is, he's no longer first among equals, at least not the way he was. He may never be again.