It was the shot of the day Friday at the Australian Open, and one that made the Tiger Woods of today look ominously like the one of yesterday.
Standing about 280 yards from the green on the par-5 eighth hole at The Lakes Golf and Country Club, Woods grabbed his 3-wood, flushed it with a slight fade into a brisk breeze and rolled it on to the green. Two putts later, his birdie helped him to a 5-under 67 and a one-stroke lead over Australian veteran Peter O’Malley going into the weekend.
The Australian Open, first staged in 1904, is Australia's most prestigious golf tournament. Geoff Ogilvy is the defending champion.
That impressed one of his playing partners, Australian Robert Allenby, who missed the cut after rounds of 75-73, but who still seemed to enjoy the front-row seat to Woods’ apparent resurgence.
“Probably in the last six months, that’s the best I’ve seen him play,” Allenby said in the scorers’ area while Woods was mobbed by autograph seekers. “I’ve seen him at his absolute best … that was a different human being. He’s on his way back, that’s for sure.
“I think where he is right now is good enough to win. I think you’ll find if he keeps going the way he is going, he’ll win over the weekend.”
Woods, who was at 9-under 135, thought Friday’s round might even have been better -- “it felt it could have been 8 or 9 deep.”
Asked how it felt to be atop a leaderboard again, Woods appeared to take some satisfaction of saying that perhaps he shouldn’t have been written off just yet.
“The headlines tell the whole story, don’t they? … They know all,” Woods said. “It is one of those things, just being patient. I’m playing like I am playing at home. It has finally come to the golf course in a tournament setting. It takes a little time but once it starts coming, the confidence starts building.”
That confidence just might see him end a two-year winless drought -- his last tournament victory came two years ago at Melbourne at the Australian Masters. Combined with his opening-round 68, Woods posted his best back-to-back rounds of the year.
It’s the first time he has led a tournament since the third round of the Chevron World Challenge last year, and the first time against a full field since the Australian Masters. Woods was tied for the first-round lead at The Barclays last year.
O’Malley, who is a member at The Lakes and birdied his last two holes, shot a 66. He was the No. 64 seed who beat Woods in the opening round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa in 2002.
Jason Day, who played alongside Woods and Allenby, had a 68 and was two behind. Bubba Watson, among eight Americans to came to the Australian Open to get ready for the Presidents Cup next week at Royal Melbourne, birdied his last three holes for a 70 and was three shots behind.
American Nick Watney faded on the front nine and shot 73, although he remained tied for fifth at 5-under 139. First-round leader Jarrod Lyle, with a 74 Friday, was among five tied with Watney.
A large crowd that packed into the knolls and dunes became louder the longer Woods stayed atop the leaderboard, and even some of the tournament officials appeared to get wrapped up in the day. At one point, they had his name spelled simply “Tiger” on a leaderboard.
For Woods, it was a strange sight.
“It feels good,” he said of his name listed first. “It feels good to be there playing properly.”
Woods repeated that he has been hitting the ball this well in practice at home in south Florida, and based on the other times he has changed swings, he referred to the process of getting confidence in practice and eventually taking it to the golf course.
“That’s progress. That’s what happens,” he said. “And once it starts coming, the confidence is building.”
The Americans lost one of their players at the Australian Open when Hunter Mahan withdrew Friday morning because of pain in the back of his right shoulder that wouldn’t go away. Rather than risking it, Mahan decided to take a few days of rest. He said he expects to be playing next week at Melbourne.
The Presidents Cup captains both made the cut. U.S. head Fred Couples shot 74 and was at 3 under, six behind Woods. International leader Greg Norman also shot 74 and was at 1 over, 10 behind. Matt Kuchar, one of Couples’ team members, failed to make the weekend, shooting 73 Friday to miss by one stroke.
Woods was among the controversial selections by Couples to the U.S. team, especially because he hasn’t won in two years and rarely has put himself in contention. But it was a day like Friday, on the back of the opening round, that made any questions about him look moot.
“It’s a great pick,” Day said. “A few people questioned it. He was not playing that great a couple of months ago, but he has certainly turned it around. Overall, his game is looking good for next week.”
Woods looked like he was enjoying himself Friday as he soaked up the adulation of thousands of Sydney golf fans who haven’t seen him play a tournament in Australia’s largest city since 1996.
“It was great,” Woods said. “Yesterday and today, playing with two Aussies, that helps. Everyone is kind of into it. The crowds were just rooting for me. It was a fun atmosphere to be part of. “