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Friday, June 13, 2008


Want A Cliché? Tiger In Hunt Again

Phil Mickelson Bunker
Phil Mickelson didn't have a solid day off the tee. He scrambled much of the round. (John Mummert/USGA)

By Alex Davidson

San Diego – Tiger stalked. Phil flinched.

That’s, pardon the expression, the knee-jerk reaction to what transpired Friday afternoon in the second round of the 108th U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course.

The showdown between the top two players in the world, the two pre-championship favorites, and the two men with the most intimate knowledge of the South Course at Torrey Pines turned into one more occasion for world No. 1 Tiger Woods to highlight the gap that clearly still exists between himself and his competition. Despite his tender, surgically repaired knee, Woods fired an inward 30 and 3-under-par 68 to vault into a tie for second place at 2-under 140 with 36 holes remaining.

Meanwhile, No. 2 Phil Mickelson straggled home in 37, shot 75 on the layout on which he grew up, and finds himself at 146, four over, seven behind leader Stuart Appleby. He’s still, apparently, several stutter steps behind the limping Woods, who beat him for the 15th time in their 23 head-to-head meetings.

The air was electric again when Woods, Mickelson and No. 3 Adam Scott reconvened for a second day together in an unprecedented pairing. But with Scott nursing a broken hand and Mickelson cursed by wayward tee shots, it was left to Woods to carry the day.

Of course, he didn’t disappoint, even though he is playing his first tournament since he finished runner-up in the Masters Tournament.

"What you always see in the majors is that Tiger finds a way to put himself right there," said Hank Haney, Woods' swing coach. "He's swinging well. He looks great. He looks as good as ever.”

Asked if he is more impressed by this performance than some he’s seen in the past, Haney added, “I’m always impressed with him.”

“Obviously, Tiger is the best who’s ever played, so you have to expect him to find a way to get it done,” said Pat Perez, who, like Mickelson, also grew up playing golf at Torrey Pines. “He knows this golf course. He puts it in the right spots and he knows how to score. It’s not surprising what he’s doing.”

What was surprising was Mickelson’s inability to answer.

Slapping the ball all over the lot, even with his driver shelved, Mickelson, who hit just six fairways and seven greens, needed several brave par saves just to remain somewhat in the hunt.

“I didn't get anything going. I made some good pars, but when I made a birdie, I followed it with a bogey. And I didn't get the momentum of the round,” said Mickelson, a four-time runner-up in the Open who has won three times at Torrey Pines in the Buick Invitational. “It was tough to finish with two bogeys, because I fought hard to keep it two over. I had some birdie holes with 7, 8 and 9 coming up. The bogey on 6 and 9 hurt.”

It certainly didn’t help to watch his nemesis hit the ball decently, though not spectacularly, but find a way to drain a series of 15- and 20-footers that left the huge galleries agog. Woods also added an eagle on the par-5 13th hole, his fourth hole of the day, and his birdie at the par-4 first was equal parts luck and inspiration as he played from near a cart path after horribly pushing his drive and somehow made a three.

“I just happened to just get a great break,” said Woods. “Not only did I have a swing and a stance, but also had a lie where I could control my distance. And it was just an 8‑iron up there. Just put the ball in the center of the green and move on from there.”

And move up, too. At the end of 36 holes, he is a mere one stroke back of Appleby, playing in the penultimate group with Robert Karlsson, who he spanked by five shots the last time they played together.

“I've been in, whether you call it the zone or not, it just feels it's a nice rhythm,” said Woods. “Been there before. Made some, shot some good rounds doing that. But today I was just trying to get back to even par, to be honest with you. That's all I was trying to do. And I just happened to make a couple more putts. That's about it.”

Woods said his practice sessions leading into the championship went well. That’s for sure. He’s seen 30 before, the second time he played nine holes after the surgery, going around his home club at Isleworth, in Orlando, in 30.

That’s about it.

“My friends or someone will ask you who's the favorite? Well, of course he's the favorite,” said Rocco Mediate, one of five others tied with Woods at 2-under 140. “Of course he is. A lot of people said, well, he's not going to win because he's had, whatever, a thousand weeks off. He's a different ‑‑ it's not the same. When I talk about players or golf, he's not included when I talk because he's up there.”

Up there, near the lead, stalking. Just like he always is.

Alex Davidson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.usopen.com.

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