AUGUSTA, GEORGIA // Tiger Woods returned to familiar territory in typically gritty fashion at the US Masters on Friday, surging ominously into contention with two back-nine birdies in the second round at Augusta National. Looking composed at one of his favourite venues and showing no hint of rust in his first tournament for nearly five months, the world number one ground out a two-under-par 70 to end a difficult day of scoring just two shots off the lead.
Engaging with the Augusta fans at every opportunity, Woods rolled in a 20-foot putt at the 13th before sinking a 12-footer at the 15th on the way to a six-under total of 138. The four-times champion, whose troubled private life appears to have had no effect on his golf, will go into today's third round headed only by British pacesetters Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood. Poulter fired a five-birdie 68, his only blemish coming at the last where he missed a seven-foot par putt, while Westwood briefly got to 10-under before losing momentum over the closing stretch for a 69.
"It feels good to be back and in contention," Woods said after finishing level with playing partner KJ Choi of South Korea (71) and Americans Phil Mickelson (71), Anthony Kim (70) and Ricky Barnes (70). "I usually put myself in contention most years here and this year I'm right there," he said. Poulter, who won his first PGA Tour title at the elite WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February, was delighted to share the 36-hole lead in the year's opening major.
"This is a nice position to be in and obviously winning a couple of months back is a huge factor in playing well this week," the Englishman said. "I'm in a position now where I can go out and be aggressive on the golf course. But it's only Friday so I don't want to get carried away." Again watched by huge galleries on his highly anticipated return to competition after a self-imposed break, Woods recorded his first birdie at the par-five second where he chipped in from just off the green to three feet.
Wearing a green shirt, black sweater and black trousers, the American tipped his cap to acknowledge the cheers from the crowd packed around the second green. Woods, who wore sunglasses in between every shot due to the glare and high pollen count, stumbled at the par-three fourth where he pulled his iron shot well left after twice changing clubs on the tee. From behind the left greenside bunker he hit a lob wedge to 10 feet but missed the par putt to slip back to four under overall.
Woods was again in crowd-pleasing mode, having promised on Monday to give more respect to the game and the fans following startling revelations about his extramarital affairs at the end of last year. After teeing off at the par-three sixth he spotted a young boy wearing a baseball cap with 'TW' emblazoned on the front and he put a huge grin on the youngster's face by giving him a friendly hand slap as he walked by.
Woods failed to birdie the par-five eighth, which he had eagled the previous day, his wedge approach screwing back 75 feet from the pin and he did well to two-putt from there for par. Out in level-par 36, he surged up the leader board with his birdies at 13 and 15, the first of them prompting him to raise his putter skywards in celebration. Woods, who was watched for the second day in a row by his Thai mother Kultida, is bidding to become the first player to launch his season with a major victory since fellow American Ben Hogan clinched the 1953 Masters.
Tricky pin positions, quickening greens and Augusta's notorious swirling winds posed continual problems for the field. The day's average score of 74.512 was almost 1.5 shots higher than on Thursday. While 16 players broke 70 in the opening round, that number dropped to just three on Friday when the cut fell at three-over 147. Former major winners Padraig Harrington and Stewart Cink were among those missing out.