At long last, Tiger’s in the lead again

It only seems like an eternity since Tiger Woods has been leading a golf tournament.

“Yeah, it’s been a long time, huh?” Woods noted facetiously.

We’ve grown so accustomed to seeing his name atop golf’s leaderboards that two weeks does strangely seem like a long time, especially within the harried context of the FedEx Cup playoffs, which have felt like one long tournament.

Woods didn’t really factor at The Barclays until the last few hours — missing a putt to force a playoff with Heath Slocum on the 72nd hole — and never had a chance to win despite a final-day 63 at last week’s Deutsche Bank.

But he restored the natural way of things Friday, firing a second-round 67 to join Mark Wilson in the lead at the halfway point of the BMW Championship.

It was, a wag noted, the first time he’s had the second-round lead since the PGA at Hazeltine, where sport’s greatest front-runner infamously let a major slip from his grasp for the first time.

“It obviously is nice,” said Woods of having a share of the lead, “I’m playing well, and I’ve got up-and-down a few times the last couple of days, something I hadn’t done.

“I missed a bunch of up-and-downs at Liberty National and last week I just didn’t make any putts.”

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Woods didn’t begin the round like a man who’d be leading by the end. Indeed, after a bogey on the very first hole dropped him to 2 under par, he trailed South African Rory Sabbatini by six shots.

“Just had to be very patient out there,” said Woods of the exacting Cog Hill layout. “I know Rory got off to a quick start, but still, there are a lot of holes to be played, and this is the kind of golf course you can just make a couple of mistakes here and there and make a couple bogeys, or hit good shots and make bogeys.

“These greens are very difficult. They’re making ball marks but they’re not stopping. They’re kind of hitting and releasing. The first hop is usually pretty good. Even if you dump it to the center, you still have a hell of a putt, up and over knobs, two or three different breaks. It’s a tough set-up.”

Woods shook his head at how much tougher the course would play if it — as expected — is to host a U.S. Open.

“Imagine these greens being baked out like they were at Torrey Pines?”

Despite his caution on the putting surfaces, Woods handled them well Friday. He didn’t make another bogey after the first hole and made five birdies on the closing 10 holes.

He will play Saturday with Wilson, whom Woods beat in the final of the 1992 U.S. Juniors, the second of his three under-age championships.

“Mark and I go back to when I was 16,” he said, “I think I was two down with (five) to go and I think I won every other hole coming in. But it was a good match.”

For purely selfish reasons, it would’ve been better theater to see Woods paired with Sabbatini.

Woods’ memory is elephantine, and he’s never forgiven the boisterous South African for packing his bags and leaving after the third round of the 2007 Chevron Challenge in California, where Woods is the host.

Sabbatini — the first player to ever leave early from the tournament — didn’t tell anyone he was withdrawing and at first said it was for “personal reasons” before his agent amended the reason to shin splints.

Sabbatini, who pocketed $170,000 for finishing last, also didn’t tell anyone where he left the courtesy car he’d been given. It was later found at the airport. Worse, there were reports that Sabbatini played golf the following day.

Woods was left fuming at the behavior, which came on the heels of Sabbatini publicly calling out Woods throughout that year.

They played in the final round at Quail Hollow, where Woods came from one shot back to win, but that result didn’t deter Sabbatini, who said the following week that Woods was as “beatable as ever.”

“I’ve seen Tiger when he hits the ball well,” Sabbatini said. “I’ve seen him when he figures it out. It’s scary. I don’t want to see that anymore. I like the new Tiger.”

Woods found himself playing alongside Sabbatini again in the final round of the Bridgestone Invitational that August. The “new Tiger” turned a one-shot deficit into an eight-shot victory.

Sabbatini at least had a sense of humor about the beatings he’d taken.

“I think I’m in his head now,” he joked.

However, later that year, at the TPC Boston, Sabbatini couldn’t leave it alone and defended his right to say whatever he wanted about Woods.

“Apparently he’s a celestial being that you can’t touch,” he said.

Apparently, that’s true when you are Rory Sabbatini playing alongside him on the golf course.