SHANGHAI – The gallery kept growing until it stretched along all 603 yards of the eighth hole at Sheshan International. It took a little longer before Tiger Woods gave them what they came to see Friday in the HSBC Champions.
Losing patience with each missed putt, Woods finally knocked in a 10-foot birdie on the ninth hole and was on his way.
With five birdies over the final 10 holes, he pieced together another 5-under 67 and surged into a share of the 36-hole lead with Nick Watney in a World Golf Championship that had a distinctive American flavor. Seven of the top nine players on the leaderboard are from the United States.
Far more tantalizing going into the weekend was Woods and Phil Mickelson, who ended their PGA Tour season with a compelling battle in Atlanta, going at it again halfway around the world in China.
Woods missed six birdie chances inside 20 feet and was growing increasingly agitated until one putt on the ninth changed his outlook.
“It certainly was a little bit frustrating, but the guys weren’t running off and hiding, either,” Woods said. “I knew if I could just play the back nine at 3-under par … I figured that would probably be a pretty good number. And I did a couple better than that.”
Mickelson chipped in for birdie on the 15th, then recovered from a poor tee shot with an unlikely birdie on the 16th. After trying to play short off the tee on the 288-yard hole and hitting hybrid into a bunker, Mickelson faced an awkward distance and a slightly plugged lie in the sand. He blasted a pitching wedge to 12 feet and made another birdie.
“One of the best shots I hit all day,” Mickelson said, and one final birdie on the par-5 18th gave him a 66.
Behind him was Woods, hard to miss with the size of his gallery and the accompanying cheers. He came up short with his wedge and chipped in for birdie, then reached the green in two on the 538-yard closing hole framed by water for a two-putt birdie.
That put him in the lead at 10-under 134 with Watney, who birdied his last two holes for a 70.
Even in a World Golf Championship with players from 23 countries – the most diverse field for this series – Woods and Mickelson have been the attractions at the biggest tournament in Asian golf.
Woods first came to China in 2001 for an exhibition and remains a favorite of the star-struck crowd that calls him “Laohu,” which is Mandarin Chinese for Tiger.
Mickelson won the HSBC Champions two years ago and has impressed the Chinese off the course, too, by speaking of a responsibility to play in Asia to help grow the game and talking up the two golf course projects he has in the country, including one in Kunming with a par-3 course that he hopes will attract children.
“This is my third year here, and I’ve seen a great increase in the number of people that have come out to watch, as well as the excitement level,” Mickelson said. “Obviously, Tiger Woods coming here plays a big part in that. But he also came here three or four years ago, and this is at a whole different level this year. It’s been neat to see.”
Woods has come twice to Sheshan International, and twice left as the runner-up. And despite leading going into the weekend, he realizes there is a lot of work left.
Watney felt as though he missed every putt that he had made the day before, yet his closing birdies put him in a share of the lead. As he finished, the world’s top two players were starting to make their moves.
“I knew from the start they were in the field, so it’s no surprise they’re playing well,” Watney said. “Whatever the lead is at, that’s not going to win the golf tournament. I need to go out and keep playing well and keep making birdies to have any shot.”
Mickelson is part of a crowd at 9-under 135. He is joined by Alvaro Quiros, the Spaniard reputed to be golf’s biggest hitter who shot a 66; and Ryan Moore, who made an 8-foot eagle on the 18th and finished his round at No. 9 by chipping in for birdie.
“If I have to be honest, I don’t see my name for a long time on the leaderboard – all were Americans,” Quiros said. “It was strange. Of course, it is exciting for me.”
Another shot behind is Anthony Kim, who saved his aggressiveness for the 18th hole by hitting a 5-wood to 4 feet for eagle. Pat Perez had a chance to post the only bogey-free round of the tournament until he missed an 8-foot par putt on his final hole for a 69, leaving him three shots off the lead.
Perez has been around long enough to understand that Woods commands the largest gallery, but he didn’t realize what kind of magnet the world’s No. 1 player was in China until he looked around and saw two spectators. He didn’t say whether that included his wife.
“It made me realize I’m actually a nobody,” Perez said. “I thought I was somebody, but this confirms it. In worldwide golf, I’m a nobody.”
He has a chance to make a name for himself this weekend, as do others.