- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. It's official: Tiger Woods can walk on water.

On a day when a deluge drowned the field around him at Bethpage State Park, golf's resident demigod scoffed at the elements and skipped around the sodden layout of the 102nd U.S. Open in 68 strokes.

Neither the bathtub better known as the Black Course nor a balky driver was able to dampen Woods' greatness. And by the time the last putt plopped home on one of the most difficult scoring days in recent Open history, Woods found himself on familiar ground alone atop the leader board at the midpoint of another major championship.

"I'm ecstatic that I'm at the top right now," said Woods, who reached 5under to claim a three-stroke lead over Ireland's Padraig Harrington, the only player within six strokes of the game's major maestro. "It was really nasty out there today. All you can do is just go out there and plod along, do the best you can and try and stay out of trouble."

Tiger's overall mindset might have been defined by that devotion to plodding patience, but his round itself was peppered with bold moments of shot-making splendor.

After pouncing on the 7,214-yard, par-70 track early and carding birdies on three of the first four holes to reach 6 under, Woods began struggling with his driver. He hit only nine fairways and 12 greens for the day, numbers that should have proved fatal on a drenched layout lined with hip-high hay. But time and again, Woods answered errant drives with almost incomprehensible recoveries, showcasing a wedge game and clutch putting stroke that must make him feel virtually bogey-proof.

Perhaps two recoveries stand out above the rest, as no other player in the field has ever executed similar shots under such conditions. At the par-5 13th, Woods actually managed to impart significant spin to a 60-yard wedge hit from Bethpage's deep, third cut of 2-foot, fescue rough. Until the golf world witnessed it yesterday, spinning such a shot was considered technically impossible. Every other player has to gouge out of the spinach, but Woods has somehow found a way to foil physics.

His second bit of stunning brilliance came at No.17, where he nearly holed an impossibly delicate pitch although his ball was buried so far down in the rough that it returned from the depths speaking Chinese.

"The lie was not very good," said Woods, perhaps authoring the understatement of the year. "It came out absolutely perfect. It looked like it was going to go in, and [caddie Steve Williams] got so fired up about it, I thought he was going to run me over."

But it was Tiger who did all the bulldozing yesterday, clearing a wide path to the successful completion of the second leg of the Grand Slam. Woods' play and the poor conditions conspired to virtually eliminate from contention every player in the field but Harrington.

For the record, Woods has never blown a 36-hole lead in a major (4-for-4). And the seemingly astronomical odds against that happening this week at Bethpage left many ready to hand the trophy to Tiger and call it quits.

"I think he's gone for good," said Tour veteran Jay Haas (146), one of 72 players to survive the weekend cut at 10 over or better. "I don't think anybody's going to catch him."

And even the normally guarded Woods spoke somewhat confidently of his working margin.

"I've still got to play 36 more holes. It's not like we're having the awards presentation today," said the 26-year-old superstar before conceding that he will be very tough to catch. "It's going to be difficult, there's no doubt about it. In any U.S. Open it's always going to be difficult to make up shots because it's not easy to make birdies."

Woods' combination of experience and self-assurance is dreadful news for a field that posted an average score of 76.5 yesterday, the highest second-round average at an Open since 1983 (Oakmont). Faced with the futility of yet another Woodsian runaway, some players groused about the unplayable conditions, and Sergio Garcia even suggested a USGA conspiracy.

Garcia, who started his round in the afternoon at 2 under at approximately the same time Woods was finishing, double-bogeyed his second hole (No.11) and spent the rest of the day missing short putts as weather conditions steadily worsened and puddles formed in the fairways.

"There was a moment when not even the squeegees or whatever you wanted to put out there was going to help," said Garcia, who finished with a 74 to fall seven strokes behind at 142. "If Tiger Woods had [still] been out there, I think it would have been called."

Garcia was far from the only player to question the USGA's decision to play on, but the organization defended itself by noting that two of the day's three sub-par scores, a 67 by Shigeki Maruyama (143) and a 68 by Harrington, were posted in the sloppier afternoon weather.

One challenger who was not whining at day's end was Harrington, who enters the weekend as the only player with a serious chance of testing Woods. Like scores of optimistic victims before him, the 30-year-old Harrington came into the interview room faced with two days of tangling with Woods and tried to exhibit a brave face.

"Sure, I know it's not going to be easy," said Harrington, who has a pair of top-5 finishes in the last nine majors on his resume. "I'm obviously not going to intimidate him on the first teebox tomorrow, that's for sure. I'm aware of what's happened to other players who have played with him in majors on Saturday and Sunday. I know negative things usually happen to those guys. But all I can do is get out there and try to look after my own game."

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