Three weeks after Tiger Woods missed the cut at the Byron Nelson Championship, ending his PGA Tour record of cuts made at 142, he started Streak II Friday at the Memorial and also launched himself into pouncing position for his 44th career victory in his ninth full season as a professional.
In his final tuneup event before the U.S. Open in Pinehurst in two weeks, Woods soared up the leader board with a run of four birdies in six holes on the front nine at Muirfield Village. By the time this muggy afternoon had ended, he was in a five-way tie for second place, a shot behind 36-hole leader Jeff Sluman.
"Kind of nice to play on the weekend," Woods deadpanned after a round of 68 and a two-day total of 7-under-par 137. Sluman, 47, a former PGA Championship winner in the field on a sponsor's exemption because of his 75th place on the 2005 money list, came in with a 71 -- 136 in his latest attempt to fill a mysterious void on his record. In 15 previous Memorial starts, he has never finished in the top 10.
"I certainly don't expect to be leading," Sluman, a six-time tour winner, said. "I hit a tremendous amount of good putts that didn't go in. I've just got to hit the ball a little closer from the fairway."
Woods, who will spend next week practicing on his home course in Orlando and making a side trip to Open venue Pinehurst No. 2, has made only one bogey in two rounds here, missing an eight-foot putt that would have saved par after an errant second shot.
If Woods, a three-time winner at the Memorial, can finish in the top three Sunday, he will move back atop the world rankings. Current No. 1 Vijay Singh missed the cut after a 74 Friday to follow his opening-round 77 and left the course without commenting.
By contrast, Woods has seemed almost bubbly this week and said the swing changes he has made over the past year are making the game far more enjoyable to him again.
"It's a lot easier now, no doubt about it," he said. "It's just becoming more sound. The swing is more sound, more reliable day in and day out. Last year, I had just an enormous checklist I had to go through just to hit one golf shot. Now I can just kind of pick out a shot and go and hit it."
He said he has never been happier, and that his marriage last October to his wife, Elin, hasn't done anything to affect his game, as some media critics had previously suggested.
"People think it's going to totally change my life, and it's been great," he said. "But I lived with Elin for two years prior to when we got married, so it didn't really change anything. We're still doing the same things. We just made it more legal. Our relationship is exactly the same, and that's the beauty of it. I love her to death, and I'm very excited about my life now and the prospects for the future."
For some time Friday, the focus here was on the past. Jack Nicklaus, the 65-year-old host of this event, played in his 30th and perhaps final Memorial. Though there were occasional flashes of how well the winner of a record 18 majors used to play, for most of the day the Golden Bear was in full growl over botched shots and missed short putts.
Needing to get to 2 over to make the cut after his opening-round 75, Nicklaus instead shot 77. He already has said next month's British Open at St. Andrews will mark his full withdrawal from big-time tournament golf, though he said again Friday he reserved the right to change his mind. If he does, it most likely would be to play in this tournament, which he conceived for his home town of Columbus, on a course he designed and constantly updated over the years.
"I don't think too many people cared about what my golf game was today, except for me, I suppose. I may be the only one," said Nicklaus, his eyes still glistening from tears shed on an emotional walk up the 18th fairway and a prolonged standing ovation from five-deep crowds all around. "It probably closes out my golf in the United States and regular tournament golf, more than likely. I may come back here. I certainly wouldn't plan on it.
"I'm very sentimental, but I try not to be that way. When I'm out there I try to play golf. That's what these people came here to see. They came in to see Jack Nicklaus play golf and I wanted them to see me, not what I did today."
Asked about the emotion of it all, he laughed and said: "I had tears in my eyes all day. The wind was blowing."
Nicklaus also had to be pleased by Sluman's performance this week, also with only one bogey over 36 holes. Sluman served as Nicklaus's assistant captain at the Presidents Cup in South Africa and while no decision has yet been made, Nicklaus may ask him to do it again when the event returns to Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in September.
That's when Woods will make his first Washington area appearance since the 2000 Presidents Cup. He said again Friday his game is rounding into the sort of high-octane form he enjoyed when he won four majors in a row over the 2000-01 seasons.
And of course, "to be one back is a good spot. . . . Off the tees? A lot more [comfortable] than I used to be, that's for sure. I've driven it pretty darned well this week."