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Tiger Woods makes second-round run into contention at Masters

Tiger Woods’ 6-under 66 (31 on the back nine) is his best Masters round in six years.

Associated Press

Tiger Woods’ 6-under 66 (31 on the back nine) is his best Masters round in six years.

AUGUSTA, Ga.

The ball sat around 10 feet from the cup on the 18th green.

Tiger Woods crouched behind it for a better look. He stared. He contemplated. And, as the seconds painfully ticked by, he finally seemed to recognize the player he used to be.

Woods did not just make a birdie on that hole, he made a statement. He made a declaration. He made you wonder if you just saw the beginnings of a man's revival.

In a 12-hole stretch in the late afternoon of the second round of the Masters on Friday, Woods was as magnificent as you remembered. He went from a player on the edge of missing the cut to charging into third place, three strokes behind Rory McIlroy.

"I played myself back into the tournament," Woods said.

The question is whether he played himself back into relevance. We have, after all, had glimpses and teases before. We have seen comebacks that lasted no more than 18 holes.

Woods managed a fourth-place finish here last year, although he wasn't terribly close to being in contention. And he had one masterful round at the U.S. Open last summer before fading on Sunday. So maybe this is a mirage. Perhaps it is another one-round surge.

But if there was one image that made you want to believe in Woods again, it was watching the ball roll toward the cup on the 18th hole at dusk on Friday.

For that brief time, it was as if the past 18 months did not exist. The putt itself was not terribly difficult, but it seemed to register much higher on the symbolic scale.

This was the kind of critical shot Woods has been missing during a long and tortuous comeback from injury, family turmoil and a revamped swing since the fall of 2009.

He double pumped his fist as the ball rolled into the hole and then made a snatching motion as he retrieved it from the cup. All the while, the gallery at No. 18 was on its feet with the kind of applause that used to be a regular part of his life.

For that moment, it was as if his career was no longer about scandal or seeking forgiveness, but simply a hopeful return to a legacy interrupted.

"Absolutely. Absolutely. We definitely could feel that," Woods said when asked about the crowd's energy building around him in the back nine. "It was fun."

That final birdie helped turn a great round into a potentially defining round. Just 12 holes earlier, Woods was stuck at par and was 10 strokes behind McIlroy.

Beginning at the eighth hole, he poured in seven birdies to jump past a couple of dozen competitors and creep up behind McIlroy.

As theater goes, this is award-winning material. You begin with the Masters. You add Woods in a dramatic return. And then you toss in McIlroy as the perfect foil.

McIlroy is, at 21, the same age as Woods was when he won his first Masters in 1997. And, like Woods, McIlroy has a definite flair about him.

McIlroy is more relaxed and outgoing than Woods, but he carries the same confidence and fascination with golf's majors. He has three third-place finishes in his past five majors.

Just a month ago, McIlroy wrote a piece in Sports Illustrated in which he talked about Woods' diminished aura, and he questioned whether Tiger could dominate again.

Now, that supposedly fading aura will be one group behind him at the beginning of the third round of the Masters this afternoon.

In some ways, it will be as much of a referendum on McIlroy's nerves as it will be on Woods' comeback.

"I'm just trying to put myself in the mix come Sunday. It's irrelevant who is there," Woods said when asked about the number of younger players on the leaderboard. "My whole job is to get myself there with a chance (to win) with nine holes to go. That's what we've always done.

"I've been successful in the past by doing it that way."

If he is feeling frisky, Woods did a nice job of hiding it Friday evening. If he wanted to mock critics who questioned his revamped swing, he managed to hold it in check.

But there were a handful of clues that this moment was not as far away as it might have appeared. Woods did not have terrific results in his first five tournaments of 2011, but he did have some nice rounds that indicated he was getting comfortable with his new swing.

And when he had a news conference in Augusta on Tuesday, Woods seemed quietly assured that many of the kinks had been worked out.

Tiger blew off a question Friday night about whether he had a sense that this kind of round was on the horizon, but you had the feeling this was no surprise to him.

For the first time in a long while, it seems as if Tiger Woods has convinced himself that greatness is just another round away.

Maybe by the end of this evening, he will have convinced us, too.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tiger Woods makes second-round run into contention at Masters 04/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 9, 2011 12:44am]

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