As Tiger Woods walked from the 11th green to the 12th tee today, he took a glance at a nearby scoreboard and saw he was only two shots off the lead. He turned to his caddie, Steve Williams, and said, "No one is taking it deep; we're still right there."
By the end of the day, Woods remained right there. He was three shots back and very much in contention to win his eighth title of the year and become the first golfer to earn $6 million in a season after completing the second round of the American Express Championship at vulnerable Valderrama.
On a dead calm, cool day played in sparkling sunshine, Woods managed to shoot a 69--140 despite a double bogey on the 15th and three missed putts of less than 12 feet. Fellow Americans Tim Herron (66) and Chris Perry (67) led at 5-under 137.
Herron and Perry closed strongly--Perry with an eagle on the par-5 17th, Herron with a mistake-free back nine that featured three birdies.
"I know if I hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens, I'm going to have a chance," Perry said.
Justin Leonard (67) and first-round leader Vijay Singh (71) were a shot back at 138. Fred Funk, the former University of Maryland golf coach, was among four players at 139 after shooting 68.
"Right now I'm in great shape," Woods said after rescuing his round by making birdies at the 16th and 17th for the second straight day. "I'm only three back, and that's fine. I'm driving it beautifully, hitting it good and I've only missed three fairways all week.
"Even though I made double, it still only got me back to even par [for the week]. I figured I could still birdie in and be in good shape. I'm certainly not going to get discouraged by it."
That's the new, mature Tiger Woods talking. In his first years on the tour, he occasionally would blow up and lose his focus after a bad hole.
Now, at 23, he often answers with a birdie, and today he made two in a row. That left him in splendid position with 36 holes to play in the last of the three inaugural World Golf Championship events of the year.
Though the field is playing for a $5 million purse, with $1 million going to the winner, this does not have the feel of a world championship event. Over the first two days, the galleries have been virtually nonexistent. Many of the game's finest players were lucky to draw a dozen people as they meandered around the cork trees that give the place such a distinctive look.
Woods, as usual, still draws the biggest crowds, though today it was perhaps because of his pairing with Bernhard Langer. This part of the Costa del Sol (also known as the Costa del Golf) is a popular vacation destination for many Germans, and Langer (70--141) rewarded his followers with birdies on his final two holes to upstage Woods just a bit.
Woods, of course, is chasing some serious history this week. He has won his last three starts, and a victory here would mark the first time anyone has won four straight since Ben Hogan in 1953.
He's also trying to become the first tour player to win eight events in a season since Johnny Miller did it in 1974.
Woods had several excellent chances to get even closer to the lead today. At the first hole, he lipped out a tricky four-foot, left-to-right putt. He grazed the hole with another eight-footer for par at No. 6, and barely missed a 12-footer for birdie at the 14th.
At the 15th, a 225-yard brute from an elevated tee to a smallish green, Woods was trying to fade a shot in, but instead hit his ball dead left. He immediately yelled, "Fore" to warn spectators sitting on a bank overlooking the putting surface. His ball hit the ground, took a bounce and trickled down a cart path, coming to rest 30 yards behind the pin.
When Woods got to his ball, on a patch of dirt two feet from the cart path, he called for a ruling because a television tower was in his line of sight to the hole.
He was given a choice of placing his ball on a patch of dirt in front of several bushes, leaving him no backswing, or the asphalt path itself. He chose the latter, but his wedge got under the ball, lofting it into a pine tree limb. It ricocheted to his right in deep grass, leaving him a dicey downhill sloping lie with a yawning bunker in front of him on his route to the stick.
Woods flopped his third shot over the trap, but it stuck on the fringe, just inches from greatness. His fourth shot from 20 feet, another flop, stopped a foot from the cup for a tap-in double bogey.
Woods came back with an eight-footer for birdie at the 16th. He then hit a magnificent bunker shot within a foot on the 536-yard 17th for the last of his five birdies.
Woods also could take comfort today that even in seemingly superb scoring conditions, no one in the field was able to go scary low, in the 62-63 range, especially among the first-day leaders. He said that was mostly due to such soft greens. Because the leaders go off later in the day in this event, putting is difficult because of a plethora of indentations from spikes, heels and even players leaning on their putters.
Woods said he'd like to see the wind pick up over the weekend.
"If you're trying to make a move, you always want wind because you'll move way up there with a great round," he said. "I haven't had one yet, but it's coming."