Tiger’s 17 birdies is personal best

Tiger Woods is always being compared — unfavorably and probably unfairly — to his younger self.

The Tiger of 2000 has long been the gold standard, and the conventional thinking is that he won’t ever be that good again.

To be fair, no one may ever be that good again.

But the 2013 version has done something through two days here on Doral’s Blue Monster that the young stud who held all four of golf’s major trophies at the same time never did.

Woods has made 17 birdies at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, beating by one his previous record — set at the 1999 Byron Nelson — of most circles on a scorecard through the midway point of a tournament.

It may sound like just another statistic, but it’s important because it’s been a while since Woods, who is now 37, has done anything better on a golf course than he used to do it.

Through two days, he’s made four mistakes — three of them stemming from bad chips, one a three-putt — that led to bogeys, or he’d have also clipped his lowest-ever score after two rounds.

At 13-under par, he fell two short of that mark on a gorgeous Friday in Miami, but it was a commanding enough performance to leave him with a two-shot lead going into the weekend.

What was more impressive than the score, however, was the manner in which it was achieved.

This wasn’t smoke and mirrors, though Woods was smoking it off the tee.

He drove it long and relatively straight, into places where his irons could get close to pins on greens that are as baked as they’ve ever been.

And from there, he was just deadly with his putter.

“I made just a bunch of putts,” he said, smiling.

In other words, it felt just like the old days.

It has certainly been a while since he’s rolled putts as purely as he has here.

On Friday, he didn’t miss a putt from inside 10 feet.

He owes, of course, a huge debt of gratitude to Steve Stricker, who performed major surgery on Woods’ putting setup on the practice green late on Wednesday night.

The result has been 49 putts and rounds of 66 and 65.

Of course, as is Woods’ wont, he doesn’t ever acknowledge that he’s made any kind of vast leap.

In his mind, he can’t ever be back because he never left.

In his mind, he’s in the midst of The Process, and the hallmark of The Process is continual improvement.

Woods can take this to extremes, as he did on Friday when he insisted that he “wasn’t that far away” last week at the Honda Classic. That he finished in a tie for 37th seemed somehow irrelevant.

The only difference between then and now, Woods explained, was that at PGA National he hit four balls in the water, lost another two and missed countless putts.

Indeed, when Woods was asked how long it had been that he had felt so in command on the greens, he didn’t go back years, but weeks.

“Yeah, Torrey Pines, so not too long ago,” he said.

“I had a nice run there.”

And that is, of course, true, at least through the first three rounds.

His final round wasn’t very memorable, but no one at the Farmers Insurance Open could mount a challenge, so Woods still won easily.

He won’t be able to afford that sort of late-inning stumble here, though: The leaderboard is too heavy with big names.

Graeme McDowell, who plays alongside Woods in the final pairing on Saturday, is two shots back and is the only player in the elite 65-man field not to have made a bogey yet.

“Tiger always brings his own interesting little circus inside the ropes. But like I say, I’ve been there many times and always look forward to playing with him,” he said.

“And he certainly looks like if you can finish one ahead of him this weekend, it looks like you’ll do OK here.”

A shot behind McDowell is a rejuvenated Phil Mickelson, who almost aced the par-3 ninth with his final swing of the day and relishes playing with Woods, whom he says “brings the best out of me.”

Stricker, Charl Schwartzel, Keegan Bradley, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson are all within striking distance, too.

So Woods knows the score.

“We’re going to have to continue making birdies out here,” he said.