Woods takes command with masterclass

Just as at the 100th US Open - won by Tiger Woods by 15 strokes - Jack Nicklaus, the golfer of the 20th century, bowed out on a Friday afternoon as the current world No 1 teed off in the second round. It was presumably not coincidence. Whether the 129th Open Championship is to be Nicklaus's last appearance in Britain, who knows? If so, the Old Course gave the old Bear a grand send-off.

Just as at the 100th US Open - won by Tiger Woods by 15 strokes - Jack Nicklaus, the golfer of the 20th century, bowed out on a Friday afternoon as the current world No 1 teed off in the second round. It was presumably not coincidence. Whether the 129th Open Championship is to be Nicklaus's last appearance in Britain, who knows? If so, the Old Course gave the old Bear a grand send-off.

What followed increased the chances of Woods being welcomed as the new champion on tomorrow evening. "Tiger's got the baton now," Nicklaus said, "and he's doing a pretty good job." Woods started his round three strokes adrift of his countryman, David Toms, who posted an early 67 to move to eight under.

By the completion of his round, however, Woods was leading by three after a 66, equalling the best score of the Championship to date.

Like the weather, which was again oddly calm, Woods has so far only moved smoothly through the lower gears. If it does start blowing over the weekend, as most hope, he has more left in his game to cope. Over 36 holes Woods has not been in a bunker or dropped a shot. The major record of 18 under par, set by Nick Faldo at St Andrews in 1990 and equalled by Woods himself at Augusta in 1997, is in danger.

Woods birdied the 1st and the 4th and even a 40-minute delay on the 5th tee could not disrupt his concentration. As he waited, Woods chatted with his playing partners, Nick Price and David Gossett, the US Amateur champion, as well as some from other groups, including his friend Mark O'Meara. The double fairways and double greens were to blame for rounds of over five-and-a-half hours.

When he finally got to play the par-five, Woods was just short of the green in two and claimed another birdie. Woods was out in 32, his 10-foot putt at the 9th giving him the outright lead again. His drive at the 10th found a bad patch of rough but he saved par. Then Woods drove over the back of the green at the 314-yard 12th but got up and down for a birdie, as he did from short of the green at the par-five 14th.

At the 17th, Woods went through the green but ended on a patch of grass by the road. His recovery was overhit but came off the bank and he bravely holed from eight feet for his par. It was looking ominously like a repeat of the 24-year-old's Pebble Beach one-man show.

With Ernie Els, after a level par 72, remaining at six under, Sergio Garcia emerged as the most prominent pursuer to Woods. Garcia, 20, pushed the world No 1 hard in the USPGA at Medinah, scene of his miracle shot from behind a tree.

That was his first major after finishing last of the non-qualifiers at Carnoustie, a place he now claims he can never remember visiting. "I would love to play with Tiger again at the weekend," Garcia said. "It would be something special."

Garcia added a 69 to his 68 of the first round. "I really played well at Medinah and I feel I am playing a lot like that," said El Niño. At seven under he was alongside Steve Flesch, the left-hander who shared second place overnight, and Loren Roberts.

Toms, who did not drop a shot, hit a seven-iron to an inch and a half at the short 11th for one of five birdies. The 33-year-old has won three times in America has rarely impacted on major championships but tied the back nine record of 29 in the final round of the US Masters in 1998.

Like Flesch, this is his first experience of The Open. "Looking back I guess I was a little cheap over the years in not coming over and try to qualify," Toms regretted.

Surprisingly, and to his own disappointment, Els was one of the few not to take advantage of the conditions. He missed chances on the opening two holes and then three-putted the 3rd. He dropped another shot in the identical manner at the 9th, to be out in 38. His only birdies came at the 10th and the 12th. On both occasions he drove to the front of the green and two-putted from 65 feet.

"It was a bit tight at the start," Els said. "I hit it close on the first and missed it, and on two I thought I made the putt and it lipped out. Then I three-putted on three, missing a very short putt. When you do all those things it really stops your momentum."

The South African might have gone over par for the day again when he found the Road Bunker on the 17th but hit his recovery to five feet to save par. "I knew when I went out it was another perfect day for scoring so it was disappointing to lose my momentum," he said. "Today was my bad day. I know I can play better over the weekend and I'll do that. I'm going to have to shoot in the 60s the next two days."

Phil Mickelson, Tom Lehman and Fred Couples were among those with Els on six under. Mickelson scored a 66, including a run of four birdies and an eagle in five holes on the back nine, as did both Davis Love and Jose Coceres scored rounds of 66 to move to four under. Couples and Jean Van de Velde were among those to score 68s, and even Seve Ballesteros had a 69, although the 1984 champion here still missed the cut.

So did Paul Lawrie, last year's winner. If he happens to turn on the TV on Sunday afternoon, Van de Velde could be one of those Lawrie is watching. The Frenchman, who lost a three-stroke lead on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie, punched the air when he birdied the last to get to five under.

"It came off the putter pure," he said. "It was a big boost after the bogey at 17. The last three or four weeks I have been very tired, but here I seem to have more energy somehow. I guess it is the occasion. My reception has been fantastic, but it has been like that everywhere I've gone all year."

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