Woods shows his class despite heavy burden

America awoke yesterday to headlines screaming "Woods may miss the Masters" although ­ as it was perfectly obvious that, with his father fighting death back in California, fate could easily conspire to keep a grieving son from Augusta ­ perhaps the tone was rather too highly pitched. But then, very little about Tiger Woods is ever understated.

His finish here in the second round of The Players Championship certainly wasn't. Over the final green in four, having located the water off the tee, a double-bogey seven looked a grim possibility until he flicked those magical hands into the rough and the Nike drilled itself into the hole.

Woods punched the air, realising that his 69 for a three-under total had hauled him back to within sight of the ball game, and, just for a split second his troubles left him.

Alas, that is all it could be, though, one glorious split second, as the world No 1's focus has so glaringly, and so understandably, been elsewhere since his late-night return from Earl Woods's cancer-stricken bedside on Wednesday night. How Woods Jnr has managed to launch any sort of bid for his second "fifth major", has impressed all who have witnessed it and the extent of his competitive instinct was revealed in his second-nine recovery from the two bogeys on the 17th and 18th (his ninth and 10th) that threatened to ruin an opening seven holes that yielded four birdies.

But there was also more evidence provided here that the class of this man transcends the mere fairways. One of the first things he did yesterday morning was seek out England's Greg Owen on the practice grounds to shake his hand and say "well played last week, buddy". There was no mention of the three-putt from three feet on the penultimate hole that had cost the Mansfield 34-year-old the Bay Hill Invitational and a life-changing victory. "I didn't need to," Woods said later. "He did play well and he'll be back." Owen appreciated it.

"You know, you look at what Tiger's going through with his Dad and you think, 'what's the point of worrying?'," said Owen. Still, it must have been hard to keep all that in perspective a little while later yesterday when he yanked a piddling two-footer on the first hole for a double-bogey? "Not really, I've missed them before and will miss them again," he said. "But I must be honest that when I had a three-footer on the 17th and then on the 18th I did think 'oh no, not again'."

Owen need not have fretted, both found cup, and a few more ghosts of last week were thus exorcised. "Yeah, but I don't think I'll ever forget it," he admitted. "It does pop up in my mind when I wake up. But I must learn from it and move on."

Indeed, this 68 has put him in a fine position to move on all the way to Georgia for his first Masters in two weeks' time. The former shop assistant has leapt from 195th to 53rd in the world since trying his luck on Stateside last year and a top-16 placing here would give him the top 50 berth he needs to qualify for Augusta.

At five under, that can now be one of the least of his expectations. Because, as the overnight leaders set out on their afternoon rounds, there were just two shots separating Owen from Jim Furyk and Davis Love and Adam Scott and Stephen Ames in the clubhouse on seven under after a 67 and 66 respectively.

With the forecasted 25mph winds seemingly remaining out on the Atlantic, Sawgrass was hardly at its fiercest. But even at its friendliest this place can still bite as Bernard Langer and Luke Donald proved. The former went from an eight-under leader to a one-under bleeder in 10 calamitous holes while the latter went home after a 74 heaped misery on a 73.

Rory Sabbatini followed Donald out of the gates, but not before his wife, Amy, caused a stir with a T-Shirt bearing the message "Keep up!". On Thursday, the South African was involved in a controversy when he and his playing partners, Nick Faldo and Camilo Vilegas, were timed for slow play. Sabbatini is the quickest player on tour. Faldo is not. Amy's protest did not work. Their round took nearly six hours yesterday.

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