DUBAI // Tiger Woods may not yet be back to the form that made him head and shoulders above all rivals in his heyday. But golf's biggest name may be getting closer.
Woods was put under the microscope for his sixth appearance in the Dubai Desert Classic when he was grouped with the two players who have leapfrogged him in the world rankings. As he tries to rebuild his game and his reputation he seemed set to be put firmly in his place by Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer during the first two rounds of the tournament.
That was how it looked as the trio approached the final hole of their first round on Thursday as the two stalwarts of Europe's Ryder Cup team held comfortable advantages over their illustrious playing partner.
Woods's magnificent eagle at that dangerous 18th hole altered the balance of power within the stellar group, however, and he carried that momentum forward in resurgent style yesterday morning.
His bogey-free 66 was the best round of the day. It was four shots better than Westwood's lethargic effort and five better than Kaymer's mundane display.
It also put Woods in position to challenge for his third career victory on the Majlis Course. He will enter today's third round in a tie for fifth place, just three shots behind leader Rory McIlroy.
Woods was understandably delighted with his improvement, but also cautious about this encouraging signal that a return to the good times is imminent after his barren 2010 campaign.
"It felt good today; I hit a lot of good shots. I have played myself right back into the tournament," Woods said after his solid all-round display thrilled another large gallery following the marquee match-up.
"But I knew last night that there are four or five things for me to work on, and I'm working on them."
Woods felt he had greater control over the trajectory of his ball than on the opening day and capitalised on six of the numerous birdie chances that he carved out to make his move.
"I had to post a good score today because the conditions when we went out there were as benign as they are going to be for the rest of the week," he said. "I reckoned it was going to be harder to make up shots over the weekend with the forecast for a swirling wind."
Westwood was irritated by his failure to maintain an advantage over Woods, which had been at five strokes before that pivotal eagle on Thursday evening.
"It was a piece of cake out there," said the world No 1, lamenting his inability to cash in on the favourable conditions. "I'm not hitting it as far as I normally would, my distance control on my irons was poor and I wasn't striking it cleanly."
In all, he summed it up as "a boring day".