Is it over? Tiger Woods roared into contention on Friday at Augusta National. One day after shooting a career best Thursday score of 68 at the Masters, Woods shot a solid 70 Friday morning. He sits at -6 138 after thirty six holes, two shots back of Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter. Neither co-leader has won a major championship. Woods has collected fourteen of these in his stellar career and is looking to pick up his fifth green jacket on Sunday.
Golf fans had many questions about Tiger as he entered the week. His 144 day absence from competitive golf brought millions of fans to their television sets in eager anticipation of his performance. A spectacular 68 on Thursday put him two shots behind leader Fred Couples. Solid iron play helped him on day one. A hot putter helped him convert par 5 birdie opportunities on the second day. When the flat stick begins heating up, Woods is hard to beat. One question remains: can the field stave off Woods over the weekend?
Scores ballooned Friday as the tournament committee selected several difficult hole locations. Three time Masters champion and CBS golf commentator Nick Faldo noted that the committee selected nine or ten benign pins on Thursday (which led to thirty plus rounds under par) in anticipation of blustery afternoon weather that many feared would lead to torrential rainfall. This front held off and the field completed day one action without delay. Several capitalized on the (relatively) easy scoring conditions and birdies came in droves. This wasn’t the case Friday, a day in which, the committee tucked flagsticks in treacherous spots and made par a great score on most holes.
Woods’ play illustrated this. He played conservatively and seized the moment on birdie opportunities. His driving continued to impress. Through the first two days, he hit nineteen of twenty seven fairways (70%). When Tiger hits the short grass he wins more often than not. At the par 5 second, Woods launched a drive and hit his second just over the green to the right. He hit a delicate chip shot to within tap in distance and went to -5. Woods parred the third and arrived at the long, difficult par 3 4th. He pulled his tee shot left of the bunker, forcing a difficult up and down to save par. His pitch landed eight feet shy of the hole and he burned the edge. This dropped him a shot and he returned to level par for the day.
The next nine holes consisted of one par after another. At the par 5 13th, Tiger brought the Augusta crowds to their feet. Left with a twisting thirty footer, Woods rammed the putt home and returned to one under on his day. He parred the fourteenth hole and stood on the fifteenth tee looking to pocket another birdie. Two solid shots left him just off the back. His pitch hit a sprinkler head and trailed off to the right of the hole. Sixteen feet separated Tiger from another birdie. The downhill, devilish putt left no room for error. Woods stroked the putt. The ball trickled towards the cup. It held its line and rolled firmly into the bottom of the hole. Woods now stood at two under for the day and within striking distance of the lead.
He didn’t come close to dropping a shot on the final three holes and signed his card for a two under round of 70. At day’s end, he had tied for second place with rival Phil Mickelson, South Korea’s K.J. Choi and two young guns, Rickie Barnes (the 2002 US Amateur champion) and Anthony Kim (who won last week in Houston).
Of these men, only Mickelson has a major championship on his resume. The two competitors in front of Woods have only sniffed major glory. Westwood came up a shot shy of Woods during Tiger’s miraculous 2008 U.S. Open playoff victory at Torrey Pines. That was the championship Tiger played on a broken leg. The Englishman also finished a shot out of last year’s Open Championship playoff at Turnberry. He bogeyed the final hole there and failed to convert a birdie on the par 5 18th at Torrey Pines–giving the field half a shot by missing the opportunity. He hasn’t closed yet and many wonder if his intestinal fortitude is up to the pressure that comes on championship Sunday. Poulter had only one major shot to his name. He played brilliantly on the final day at the 2008 Open at Birkdale but came up short of a magnificent Padraig Harrington. The Englishman came to Augusta in fine form after capturing the WGC-Accenture Match Play Tournament in February.
But these guys must slay a Tiger. They must keep up with a man on a mission. No one beats the world’s top player when he hits fairways and makes putts. Through two rounds, Woods has hit the short grass time after time and tricky putts poured in on the second nine Friday.
Leaders beware. Tiger is on the prowl. It isn’t over till the fat lady sings. But, a discerning ear has heard the echoes of Tiger’s roar. Woods positioned himself beautifully through the first two days and comes into the third round in great position to make a Saturday charge.
Is it over yet? Tiger will answer this question with his play tomorrow. Through Friday, he looks like a safe bet.