- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tiger Woods says his game is starting to come around, and not many doubted him yesterday in the Wachovia Championship.

Woods made every putt inside 20 feet and one from nearly 50 feet en route to his best round since February, a 6-under 66 at sun-baked Quail Hollow that gave him a two-shot lead going into the weekend.

“More than anything, I gave myself some looks at the putts and I made them — just about every one of them,” Woods said. “It’s a nice combination.”

Woods was at 9-under 135, two shots ahead of Kirk Triplett (73) and Notah Begay (70).

Vijay Singh, who is challenging Woods for No.1 in the world, missed a half-dozen putts inside 18 feet on his back nine and had to settle for a 70, leaving him in the group only three shots behind and setting up the prospects for a major showdown tomorrow.

Singh is hitting the ball so well that Woods, three shots ahead of him, and Masters champion Phil Mickelson (70), two shots behind him, was of little concern.

“We’ve got the weekend ahead of us,” Singh said. “I’m playing well. I think I’m going to be there Sunday.”

There’s a long list of players ready to join him. Stuart Appleby (72), Brett Quigley (72) and Joey Sindelar (69) joined Singh at 6-under 138.

Davis Love III birdied four of his last five holes for a 66, matching Woods for the best round of the day, and was at 5-under 139 with former Masters champion Mike Weir (72), Kevin Sutherland (68) and Chris DiMarco (70).

Woods, who won the Match Play Championship earlier this year, has not been closer than six shots of the lead going into the weekend at his seven previous stroke-play events this year.

“Everything is improving,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before it starts coming together. Hopefully, I can get out there tomorrow and play just the way I did today. And hopefully on Sunday, I’ll do the same thing.”

Indeed, the final two rounds will be a good gauge of his game.

Woods is the best closer in golf, having won the last 18 times on the PGA Tour when he had at least a share of the 36-hole lead. That streak dates to the 1999 Byron Nelson Classic, and there is some historical significance.

It was the week leading into the 1999 Nelson that Woods, who had spent the previous year overhauling his swing, had an epiphany on the practice range when all the changes felt natural. That was the start of a staggering run in which he won 20 times over a two-year period, including a sweep of the majors.

Woods doesn’t think he’s at that stage. Besides, he said he is only fine-tuning his swing, not revamping it.

“I hit one golf shot where I didn’t feel anything and I knew that was it,” Woods said of that moment five years ago. “If I could replicate that, I would be on the right track. I haven’t had a moment like that yet. I may never, because that was such a drastic change. This is just a minor change.”

The biggest difference was his putter.

Woods took only 22 putts, and at one point had seven consecutive one-putt greens. It all started on the second hole, when his 50-foot putt from the bottom of the green fell for birdie, the kind of break that hasn’t been going his way the last few months.

Still, he figured he was in for a good round after his worst shot of the day.

Unsure whether to hit it low or high, a fade or a draw, he pushed it high and so far right that it landed in the middle of some pine trees some 50 yards right of the pin. He was fortunate to eventually get up-and-down for bogey. On the next hole, he drove it so well that Woods only had a 6-iron into the 532-yard seventh to set up a two-putt birdie.

“That’s when you know you’ve erased it and gone back to what you need to do,” he said. “That’s cool.”

When his 20-foot birdie curled into the right side of the cup at No.11, he was tied for the lead.

“He was 6 under, and I thought I was going to have a course record for less than 12 hours,” said Triplett, who opened with a 64 on Thursday. “You’d like to have it for a couple of days, give the ink a chance to dry for that scorecard they’re going to put up in the locker room.”

Not to worry. Woods escaped with par on the 14th, hooked his drive into the water to make bogey on the par-5 15th and only got one of those shots back.

Triplett stayed with him until hitting into thick rough and missing a 3-foot bogey putt on the 16th.

Mickelson has been in contention every Sunday he has played this year, a trend that looks as if it will continue at the Wachovia Championship. Lefty didn’t get much out of his game, but he didn’t hurt himself with a 70 and was only five shots back.

“It seems like every time I missed a shot, I made a bogey,” Mickelson said. “I thought it was a round I could go low, so 2 under is a little disappointing.”

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