ORLANDO, Fla. — Even when he was winning with regularity, Tiger Woods rarely made it look this easy at Bay Hill.
He putted for birdie on every hole.
His longest putt for par was on the 18th, when his birdie try caught the right edge of the cup and left him about 3 feet coming back.
If the game looked familiar, so did his position Friday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Woods ran off four straight birdies early in his round, then made back-to-back birdies late in the afternoon for a 7-under 65, giving him a share of the lead with Charlie Wi. It was the first time in 30 months on the PGA Tour that Woods has been atop the leaderboard going into the weekend.
“It was a solid round of golf,” Woods said. “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. A lot of positives today.”
Wi, the 54-hole leader at Pebble Beach this year, rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on his last hole for a 68 to join Woods at 10-under 134.
Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell had an eagle-par-birdie finish for a 63, while Jason Dufner extended his solid play on the Florida swing with a 69. They were one shot behind at 135.
Woods last had the 36-hole lead in any tour event at the Australian Open in November, and he tied for third. On the PGA Tour, go all the way back to the Tour Championship in September 2009 to find the last time he was atop the leaderboard going into the weekend.
It looks even more ominous at Bay Hill, where Woods is a six-time winner.
“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.”
Woods at least is in better shape than he was two weeks ago. His future looked as muddled as ever when Woods was taken off the golf course in a cart at Doral because of soreness and swelling in his left Achilles tendon, the same injury that forced him to miss three months and two majors a year ago.
One week later, he was practicing at Augusta National. Now, he’s the player everyone is chasing on the weekend.
“I saw him on television at Doral and didn’t look good there,” said Ernie Els, who played with Woods at Bay Hill, and played with him when Woods shot 62 on the last day of the Honda Classic. “Today he was on, and today was the same as I saw at the Honda — very on.”
Woods only had a couple of nervous moments.
He ran off four straight birdies on the front nine to quickly get into the mix, and then couldn’t decide how to play his tee shot on the 10th. It didn’t help that earlier in the round, he looked over at adjacent first tee and saw Nick Watney — affectionately known as “Rube” — pipe his tee shot out-of-bounds to the right.
“I got over there 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 bailed on it, because I didn’t want to hit it right out-of-bounds,” Woods said. “And I chalked that up to just not listening to my instincts of hitting a 3-iron down there or just chipping a 5-wood — or not watching Ruby hit that shot.”
Woods was lucky. The snap hook bounced off a net fence protecting the houses, and he had just enough room to play to the middle of the 10th green and walk away with par.
He also was disgusted with his approach to the par-5 16th, turning in anger and swiping at the ground. It wasn’t a great shot, but it was dry, catching the left side of the green 50 feet away and setting up a two-putt birdie.
Woods also had a two-putt birdie at the par-5 sixth. He made birdies on the other par 5s with his wedge game. Over two rounds, he has had such improved control of his play that he hit 19 consecutive greens in regulation at one point. That streak ended on the 13th hole Friday, when he two-putted for par from on the fringe.
Some of that is familiarity.
“I’ve had a few places where I’ve felt comfortable and I’ve played well, and this is one of them,” Woods said. “For some reason, I just understand how to play it.”
And some of that is becoming more confident with his swing, especially how far he is hitting the ball. Woods said he was not hitting his irons as well before going to work with Sean Foley, and a straighter, tighter ball flight has led to more distance — and more adjustments.
He felt as though he hit the ball better on Thursday in a round of 69, although he didn’t have nearly as many birdie chances.
“My bad days are not as bad as they used to be,” Woods said.
It was the fifth time Woods had had at least a share of the 36-hole lead at Bay Hill, and he has failed to win only once from that position. Woods served up several reminders that the tournament is only halfway over, along with gentle rebukes that it hasn’t been that long that he’s been in the hunt.
He was tied for the 54-hole lead at Abu Dhabi, finishing third behind Robert Rock. Woods played well at the Australian Open until a poor third round. As for winning, he counts that birdie-birdie finish to win the Chevron World Challenge, which counted toward the world ranking even though it featured an 18-man field from the top 50 in the world.
“So it really has not been as long as people might think it has been,” Woods said. “I’m comfortable up there, and I feel like I’m playing well. 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.”
Wi, who shared the 18-hole lead with Dufner, birdied four of his last six holes to catch up to Woods. From the right rough on the ninth hole, he hammered out a shot to 25 feet below the cup for one last birdie.
Wi and Woods grew up in southern California and have known each other since their junior days, though Wi is four years older.
“Tiger is the man, and it’s going to be fun tomorrow,” Wi said.
The best round came from McDowell, and it was a reminder of how far he has come in one year. McDowell had a dream season in 2010 by winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, winning the decisive point for Europe in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, then ending the year with a record comeback against Woods in the Chevron World Challenge.
McDowell had a hard time managing his time, much less his expectations, and the eye-opener was at Bay Hill last year when he shot 80.
This time, McDowell was 17 shots better.
“That 80 was a wake-up call, but I didn’t wake up for another four months or so,” McDowell said. “It was more of the panic button. It was a pretty awful four or five months for me.
“But like I say, I feel like you learn more from those types of experiences than you do from shooting 63 at Bay Hill. There’s not much to learn out there except that if you play great and hole some putts, you can go low.”
That’s just what he did.
Dufner set the early pace and was the first to reach 10 under until going for the green on the par-5 sixth, misjudging the wind and going into the water to make bogey. Even so, it was another solid round in Florida. Dufner had the lead going into the weekend at Innisbrook, and now he is one shot behind at Bay Hill.
“I think any given day, I can go out and shoot 5 or 6 under, do it pretty comfortably,” Dufner said. “If the putter were to get hot, I feel like I could shoot some lower scores. There has not been a lot of stressful situations that last two or three weeks.”
The stress might pick up Saturday. Woods brings energy to the course when he’s around the lead, especially at Bay Hill, and especially when it’s been so long since he has won on the PGA Tour. He has gone 27 PGA Tour events without a trophy.