Bryant, whose first round of 62 set a new course record here, was still bowling along merrily five shots in front of the field halfway through the second round. But then he started to find trouble and had to settle for a 68 and a tie for the lead with the defending champion Retief Goosen, of South Africa, after the second round.
Goosen sprayed his tee shots all over the course and still managed to continue his mastery here at East Lake, hitting only four fairways but posting a four-under par round of 66 to erase a five-shot deficit.
Tiger Woods hit only three fairways - one shot wound up in a tent full of ice for the concession stand - but scratched out a 67 and was three shots back, along with Ben Crane (65) and Scott Verplank (66).
Thanks to Bryant's mini-stumble, the season-ending event for the top 30 on the money list was suddenly wide open at the half-way point. "I started thinking about a 62 again," said Bryant. "But I was able to right the ship at the end."
Bryant, playing in his first Tour Championship, knocked in a six-foot birdie putt on the seventh hole to go 11 under for the tournament and five shots clear of anyone else. Even Goosen, who is trying to become the first back-to-back winner of the event in its 19-year history, started to wonder if anyone could catch him. "Then he got caught up in bunkers," Goosen said.
Bryant made his first bogey of the tournament by going from bunker to bunker on the eighth hole, and a lay-up into the bunker on the par-five ninth hole cost him a chance of a birdie. When he drove into a bad lie in the bunker on the 13th, his lead had disappeared and several other players - Woods included - were closing fast. "I just said, 'I'm tied for the lead at a great tournament'," Bryant said. "All that matters is what I do from this point forward."
He turned it around with a 30-foot eagle putt on the 15th, but Goosen caught him with a six-foot birdie of his own on the 16th. The pair were on 130, 10 under par, which was by three shots the lowest 36-hole score at East Lake.
Woods might have joined them if he had figured out the two par fives. He played them in even par, either not getting up and down or missing the fairways. Both rounds, he has started strong and had to play hard to keep from losing shots. "It's been frustrating, because if I take care of the par fives, I'll be at the top of the board," he said.
Tim Clark of South Africa shot 67 and was at six under, while Charles Howell III (68) and Stuart Appleby (65) were another shot behind.
In fact, Woods was lucky to be only three behind. From behind a tree on the 17th - right after his swing coach Hank Haney had given a tip on television on how to hit a low punch around the trees - Woods went through the green and chipped poorly to 20 feet. He made the par putt, then hit his tee shot on the par-three 18th to about five feet for birdie."That was huge," Woods said. "Goosen and Bart are playing great, and if I make bogey there and they make one more birdie coming in, all of a sudden the gap becomes five."
The gap was five at one point for Bryant, and all that mattered was how he recovered after letting it slip. He hit a three-iron into about 30 feet on the par-five 15th, then turned and raised his arms when it dropped in the center of the cup. That restored his lead, not to mention his confidence.
"To have had it to three under [for the round] and for that to put me at two under, it was like, 'OK, I didn't lose too much'," Bryant said. "The eagle righted my wrongs. I'm happy to be 10 under. I'm happy to be tied for the lead. Where I'm at now is not a bad place to be."
Goosen could not agree more. This was the eighth time in 10 rounds at East Lake that he shot in the 60s, and he quickly fell behind with a bogey from the bunker on the opening hole. But that was the only shot he dropped, and Goosen kept plugging away until Byrant came back to him.
"My putting is good at the moment," Goosen said. "I'm making a lot of good saves out of the rough." He hasn't had much of a choice. Goosen did not find the short grass until the eighth hole, where he made birdie to start his climb back to the lead.