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Tiger stalks into contention after McIlroy's new maturity pays off

It takes a lot to overshadow Tiger Woods when he is reprising an act once so familiar in sport and slicing through the field with a sizzling 66. But Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia threatened to do just that as the Desert Classic reached halfway here yesterday.

What cheek they both showed to even try to steal the spotlight after Woods, the world No 3, had put his playing partners, the world No 1 and 2, in their place. But when McIlroy is in this form he can turn anybody's eye. And Garcia? When it comes to coming back from a personal crisis even Woods, himself, must call the Spaniard's resurgence heart-warming.

But first to McIlroy, leading the way on 11-under, one ahead of Garcia and four clear of Woods. His 68 yesterday might not have looked so nearly as neat on both the scorecard and the fairway to his first-round 65, but to McIlroy they were incomparable. "This was much the more satisfying," he said, reflecting on how his new attitude allowed him to "dig in and not let it be a 72 or 73". "Maybe this time last year I would not have been able to do that."

McIlroy has gone in for something of a reinvention during the close season. The last straw came at the Chevron World Challenge in December. "If I had just played smart and made some good decisions I would have won that thing easy," said the 21-year-old, with just one win since his maiden title here two years ago. "That's the way it goes sometimes, but I really felt like that for most of last year. I was playing a lot better than the results were reflecting. I adopted this approach at Abu Dhabi [three weeks ago] and it seemed to work pretty well for me."

Basically the tactic is for this most natural of golfing swashbucklers to play conservatively when the hole, conditions and tournament requires it. A perfect example of this was the 18th yesterday, when he declined to take the pin on at the front of the par-five and laid up in front of the lake. He birdied, while most who inevitably found themselves on the back of the putting surface took three to get down.

That happened to Garcia. But he was not about to moan. Not where he's been. This is just his third tournament after a three-month absence he felt obliged to take after falling out of love with the game. Eighteen months ago he was ranked No 2, but after a split with his girlfriend, Greg Norman's daughter, Morgan, his life and career fell apart. He started the year as world No 80, but is already on the rise.

A top-10 placing at Qatar last week was encouraging; this week has been rousing. He is the only player yet to take a bogey, two 67s putting him a tie for second with South Africa's Thomas Aiken. His mood later was strangely surly and pointed to a man not yet at ease with himself, but his presence sets up a fascinating weekend.

Any other year Woods's 66 would have meant one thing. He would chase down McIlroy, preferably treading all over Garcia in the process, and produce the killer blows tomorrow. Post-ridicule we're not so sure. After all, he hasn't won a title for 15 months. No doubt his blemish-free, six-under round did scream at a fallen icon scrambling back up the pedestal but we have been here before all too recently.

Same stage, two weeks ago he was also within four shots at Torrey Pines after an encouraging 69-69 beginning to his seasonal opener. Then, a 74-75 weekend hurtled him down to a tie for 44th. His body language was poor, although yesterday he claimed it was a positive experience. "Actually, it was good I went through that as it identified some of the things we needed to work on," he said. "And last night we worked out a few things I didn't like. Today I went out there and really controlled my trajectory well. Going into the weekend, with the wind that's forecast, that's important."

Woods has every right to feel confident. After a scrappy 71 on Thursday – transformed from over-par misery to under-par mediocrity by an eagle on the last – he was near to faultless yesterday. The crowds were huge, as was his response on a morning where conditions were made for scoring. The pick of his round came at the sixth (his 15th). "That was a well-played hole – to be able to hold up a driver like that and turn an eight iron in there to what, a foot and a half?" he said, before explaining how his work with Sean Foley has made him longer off the tee (when he gets it right, of course). "How much longer? In the air, an easy 10 yards," he claimed.

It was good enough to put him two ahead of Lee Westwood, world No 1, and three clear of Martin Kaymer, No 2. Two personal battles had been won. So many more lie ahead.