Nearly Perfect Tiger Fires 65, Shares Lead
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Thanks, everyone...except for the jerk that made the spike marks interfering with my putt on 18...

Last time Tiger Woods had at least a share of the 36-hole lead at a PGA Tour event was at the 2009 Tour Championship. Oh, how time flies — and yes, it’s really been that long. However, he did lead at the halfway mark four months ago at the Australian Open, and then played his way out of contention in the third round but bounced back on Sunday to finish third. Not to be Debbie Downer, but let’s not get too excited yet (I’ve learned the hard way when I seriously thought he was going to win by five at Pebble, instead he shot 75 and got his butt whooped by Phil Mickelson).

Back to the present day. In the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tiger looked as good as he has in the last two years-and-change, firing off four consecutive birdies early on Friday. He kept the momentum going, adding three more on the back nine, to post a bogey-free seven-under 65 at Bay Hill, where he’s won six times.

Graeme McDowell had the round of the day, posting a nine-under 63. Quite a turnaround from exactly a year ago at this event when he shot 80. G-Mac is tied for third going into the weekend.

With a two-day total of 10-under, Woods is tied for the lead with Charlie Wi, who held a share of the first-round lead with an opening 66. Everyone had pretty much written off Wi, who played in the penultimate group, especially when he dropped to six-under after a bogey on No. 3 (he started on No. 10). Not so fast! — Wi birdied four of the last six to secure a tee time with the 14-time major champ on Saturday.

“It was a solid round of golf,” said Tiger in his post-round presser.  “I felt like I actually hit it better yesterday than I did today.  I’ve made more putts today for sure.  I felt great over the putter.  My speed was good.  I left a couple putts dead short, right in the center of the hole.  Actually it really could have been a really low round today.  A lot of positives today.”

With the exception of two shots–his drive on 10 and second on 16–Tiger’s ballstriking was nearly flawless. He hit 17 of 18 greens, and the only one he missed, No. 13, was on the fringe, which also ended his streak of consecutive greens in regulation at 19. He wasn’t as perfect off the tee, but he was still pretty darn good, hitting 14 of 18 fairways.

What happened on 10? He pulled it way left, but he caught a Phil as luck would have it, he had a clear shot to the green and two-putted for par.

Tiger admitted to having a mental lapse on the tee shot. He said he was teeing off No. 1 when “Ruby,” otherwise known as Nick Watney, push it OB on No. 10.

“Unfortunately I saw Ruby hit his tee shot, when we were on 1, we were teeing off at the same time and Ruby hit it out-of-bounds,” said Tiger.  “I got over (to No. 10) and for some reason, I’m thinking, you know, I probably really shouldn’t hit this driver; I’ll take something off of it, and just hit a little softy out there, and instead I bailed out on it, because I didn’t want to hit it right out-of-bounds.

“And I chalked that up to just not listening to my instincts of hitting a 3-iron down there or just hitting a 5-wood. Or not watch Ruby hit that shot.”

See, good spirits, and (somewhat surprisingly) honest or at least as much Tiger divulges when it comes to letting bad thoughts creep in his head.

On the reachable-in-two par-5 16th, Tiger pulled his second shot and flirted with the hazard, but it managed to find the left-side of the green and stay dry. He was about pin-high, but 50 feet away from the hole on the right-side. He rolled an excellent lag across the green, but left it just a foot short in the gut (had he hit it a little bit harder, it probably would have dropped). Regardless, it’s never bad to have a kick-in for birdie.

Meanwhile, Ernie Els, who played alongside Woods the first two rounds, also birdied the 16th, but in a very different fashion. Els hit his drive in the fairway bunker on the right and then his shot out clipped a tree and ended up in the hazard, though he stayed out of the water and his ball was playable out of the heavy rough. He hit an excellent pitch to about six feet, which he made for birdie.

As Tiger walked off the green, he laughed, shaking his head, and said, “How about that 4? F*** me.” (Just to be clear, he meant that as a compliment and it was hilarious.)

Ernie also continues to be Tiger’s good-luck charm. Last time the two were paired together was at the Honda Classic when Tiger shot a closing 62.

“(Tiger) should pay me,”‘ Els joked. “When I see him on television, I see him miss a lot of putts, but with me, he’s on — putts it well, hits it well.”

We are well aware Tiger hasn’t won an official event since November 2009. So is he. But naturally, he was asked the usual daft questions about his drought. You know, like if he still remembers how to deal with the pressure, if he feels like he needs to win, what his outlook is having the 36-hole lead for the first time in forever, etc.

“Well, it hasn’t been that long, you know,” said Tiger, smiling. “I had the lead at Abu Dhabi this year.  So it really has not been as long as people might think it has been.  I’m comfortable up there and I feel like I’m playing well.  You know, we’ve still got a long way to go.  We still have 36 holes to go.  Still need to continue doing what I’m doing out there, just kind of plodding my way along.”

Yes, there is still a lot of golf left. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that no lead is safe and it’s not over until the last putt drops on the 72nd hole. Tiger has showed glimpses of the “old Tiger” this year, but he hasn’t been able to put together four consecutive rounds of solid golf. He’s been able to put three together. Can he change that this weekend and break the win-less streak? There’s no better place than at a course where he feels comfortable and captured six titles, including in 2009 with the walk-off birdie on the 72nd hole (that was awesome).

Putting is also a crucial component and the area of his game that’s let him down recently. And you know these greens at Bay Hill are unpredictable.

“The hard part about this golf course now is that the greens are a little bit inconsistent with firmness,” said Tiger. “Some greens are sticking and some greens are repelling, and you don’t know which one is which.  That’s one of the more difficult, tricky parts about it, because you can hit good shots, and one sticks and one kind of hops over the back.”

Those spike marks are frustrating, too. He had two of them in his line on that birdie putt on 18.

“I want to win, yes, absolutely,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go. It’s not like it’s over right now. We’ve got 36 holes to go.”

I’m not an oddsmaker, but I’m betting the chances he’ll be hoisting the trophy on Sunday aren’t exactly the same as they were the last time he was in this position. Oh, the good ol’ days! Well, I’m pretty sure just about everyone would like to see Tiger back in the winner’s circle. (Frankly, I’m almost as sick of hearing him field those questions about it as he is answering them!)

Oh, one last thing: Tiger’s left Achilles still feels fine and he’s continues to be limp-free.

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)