Woods eclipses McDowell to surge ahead

 

For the first time in two and a half years, Tiger Woods is on top of an American leaderboard going into the weekend. In 2009 it would have seemed so simple. Now it is simply so enthralling.

A seven-under 65 in yesterday's second round sent the former world No 1 into a tie with Charlie Wi, one shot clear of Graeme McDowell and Jason Duffer. Woods has prevailed over the Bay Hill course six times. The bookmakers rate him as an even-money favourite to make it a seventh – and send the hype machine into overdrive for the Masters, which tees off in 12 days' time.

It was difficult to equate the Woods who Florida has watched this week advance to 10-under with the Woods who, in the same state two weeks ago, limped out of the WGC Cadillac Championship with six holes remaining. Never mind a fitness test, so far this has seemed but a mere warm-up around a track he knows so well.

In the first round Woods looked comfortable enough, but yesterday he appeared supremely nestled in his comfort zone. He claimed to have only putted well and not to have felt at ease with rest of the game. If that is true, his rivals need to worry. Woods missed but one green in regulation and that was marginal.

"The difference was I putted well today," he said. "I didn't feel I hit the ball that well – but I played smart." On the Achilles trouble which forced him to pull-out in Miami, he said: "I'm having treatment and there's no swelling. Everything's good."

So the fairway appears clear for him to march to his first official victory since before he crashed into that fire hydrant 28 months ago and set forth a torrent of ridicule concerning his private life. He now appears ready to end the drought. Can anyone stop him? McDowell will fancy it.

It was only a year ago last December when the 2010 US Open champions overhauled Woods head-to-head at Tiger's own tournament in California. And the Ulsterman's nine-under 63 yesterday screamed of a man entering form at exactly the right time.

One of the more curious stats of the last month is that for his last three tournaments, the Ulsterman is an accumulative six-over for his first-round – and 20-under for his second round. McDowell opened here with a 72 and then stormed back to continue the trend of the Honda Classic three weeks ago (started with a 73, followed with a 64) and the Cadillac three weeks (started with a 75, followed by a 67). McDowell will put it together for all four rounds one of these days.

Justin Rose will also sense an opportunity. If the Englishman can follow up his triumph at Doral a fortnight ago, he will ensure that the United Kingdom tees off at Augusta boasting the top four in the world. Yesterday's 69 left Rose at six-under.

In the old days, Rose would not have been given much hope of breaching a four-stroke deficit at Bay Hill with Woods. Now? Golf holds its breath.

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