Tiger Woods knows he’s playing better than he has in the past two years, and he has the leaderboard to prove it.
Woods hit a half-dozen extraordinary shots Friday in the Chevron World Challenge on his way to a 5-under 67, giving him a three-shot lead over Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi going into the weekend at Sherwood Country Club.
It was the second straight tournament that Woods had the 36-hole lead. Three weeks ago at the Australian Open, he was one shot ahead until a 75 in the third round. Woods wound up in third place at The Lakes, his best finish of the year.
With each round, it looks as though his best might not be too far behind.
Woods had two eagles, and nearly had a third with a flop shot from behind the 13th green that he was still talking about long after his round. Not even a double bogey on the par-3 15th hole when a gust knocked his ball into the water could keep him from a comfortable lead after two rounds.
"I want the lead after four days," said Woods, winless in his last 26 official starts dating to the Australian Masters in November 2009. "Two days is nice, but four days is even better. I know I’m playing better, and it’s nice to see my position on the leaderboard equating to it.
"Two stroke-play events in a row I’ve played really well."
Woods was at 8-under 136 and will play in the final group Saturday with Kuchar, who still is trying to figure out how to finish off a good day at Sherwood.
At least this time, Kuchar only came up short and into the water on the 18th for a bogey. In the opening round, he was two shots out of the lead until a triple bogey on the 16th and a bogey on the 17th sent him to a 72. Kuchar played well again as the wind arrived in the middle of the round, and shot 67 to match Woods and Zach Johnson for the best score of the day.
"I always thought as a player, if you had a chance . . . and you want to test yourself against the very best, it seemed like, man, if you could go toe-to-toe with Tiger Woods and have a chance to beat him, that’s a real feather in your cap," Kuchar said. "And you want his best. You don’t want to see him struggling and missing cuts. That’s no fun to say, ‘I beat Tiger Woods. He missed the cut and I had a 15th-place finish.’ You want him at his best going toe-to-toe coming down to the wire.
"And it’s fun to see him at that point."
Choi had a three-shot lead over Woods through six holes and was staying with him until hitting in the water twice on the par-3 15th, taking a quadruple-bogey 7. Choi bounced back with a birdie and salvaged a 73.
He’s still very much in the mix, though Choi saw what he might be up against on the weekend.
"To put it simply, today he played like an artist," Choi said about Woods. "It’s pretty clear that he’s really recovered and is back in his old form again, and he missed a few putts, but it was really good to see him play well."
Johnson and Hunter Mahan (68) were four shots behind at 4-under 140 in the 18-player tournament.
Woods’ only bad hole was the 15th, where he had no complaints about the shot. He hit an 8-iron just like he wanted, then could only hope that the wind swirling through that corner of the small canyon left the ball alone. It didn’t. He went into the water and missed his bogey putt.
Despite a double bogey, Woods wound up expanding his lead on that hole because of Choi’s mishap.
"Not exactly how I envisioned . . . increasing my lead," Woods said. "But no, I hit a sweet shot in there. Unfortunately, I caught the wrong gust at the right time. There was nothing I could do."
There wasn’t much wrong with the rest of his day.
On the par-5 second hole, Woods was on the side of the hill under a tree when he hit a 5-iron with a fade over the water to a front pin. He skipped sideways down the hill and clutched his fist about shoulder-high when the ball plopped down 4 feet from the cup. It’s rare for anyone, much less Woods, to show that kind of emotion on the second hole on a Friday. The shot was that good, and there was more to come.
His one bad swing on the par-5 fifth was a snap hook into the trees, and he was lucky to find the ball to punch out. From 257 yards to an elevated green, Woods hit a 3-wood left of the flag, and it caught the slope and rolled to 4 feet. What looked like a possible bogey turned into an unlikely birdie chance, until he missed the putt.
He three-putted the next hole as Choi began to retake the lead, but Woods caught him with a 4-iron to about 15 feet for eagle on No. 11, followed by a 12-foot birdie putt on the next hole and that flop shot that stopped a turn from dropping on No. 13 that left him a tap-in birdie.
Woods had a four-shot lead at the Chevron World Challenge last year, and kept that lead all the way into the final round until Graeme McDowell caught him on Sunday and beat him in a playoff. Woods has said he only had one shot that day, though now he appears to have any shot he wants.
He has shot in the 60s in eight of his last nine rounds, dating to the second round of the Frys.com Open. Even so, Woods is only halfway home to ending the longest drought of his career. Kuchar, meanwhile, is coming off a World Cup win with Gary Woodland and was happy to have a chance. There was a time when Woods was five shots clear, and it looked as though the final official event of the year in America could be a two-man race between Woods and Choi.
"I had it going yesterday, had it going today," Kuchar said. "It’s been a good stretch for me the last couple weeks. I felt like I certainly could throw my hat there in the ring and then hope to try to catch them. I’m still a couple shots back, but with 36 holes to play, got some time to catch up."