- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006

HOYLAKE, England — The golf world is now in the unenviable position of trying to take the claret jug from Tiger Woods.

For a second consecutive day the world’s No. 1 player dazzled with his long irons at Hoylake, scorching the layout for a course record 65 to take a one stroke lead into the weekend at the 135th British Open.

Woods hit 16 greens and surged to 12 under for the championship, authoring the shot of the day at the 14th, which he eagled by holing a 4-iron.

“I really hit flush and held it nicely,” said Woods (132), who couldn’t even see the pin on the 14th from his vantage 212 yards back in the fairway. “I was just trying to land the ball on the front edge and let it chase on there and get my four and go on. It happened to go in.”

It happened to go in because Woods hit that 4-iron, like virtually every other long iron he has hit all week, precisely where he wanted to. Woods again plotted his way around the golf course with a series of 2-irons off the tees on the 7,258-yard, par-72 course. And once again, that tactic paid dividends thanks to his unwavering approach-shot accuracy and ball flight, as he took Hoylake’s dangerous cross-bunkers out of play but was still able to get at pins with his spot-on long approaches.

As recently as last year, it was thought that the best way to tame Tiger was to put him on a tight track that took the driver out of his hands. It’s both the height of irony and a testament to his greatness, therefore, that Woods has dropped the driver of his own volition at Hoylake and still come within two strokes of the Open’s 36-hole scoring record (Nick Faldo’s 130 at Muirfield in 1992).

The field is now left with the daunting challenge of catching the 10-time major champion, who is perhaps the greatest front-runner the game has ever known. Though his lead is but a tenuous stroke, Woods has never lost a major when tied or leading after 36 holes, winning six times from the weekend pole.

“As you know and as I know, he’s quite a good front-runner,” said Ernie Els of the challenge ahead. “You need to kind of reach out and try and hold him back. It will be very tough to do, but you need to get close to him. He’s not going to back down from a lead.”

Els (133) started his second round in the afternoon at 4 under with Woods’ terrifying morning total already glaring down ominously at him from the leader board. And impressively, the 36-year-old South African with three majors to his credit warmed to the charge instead of cooling in concession, matching Woods’ record 65 with his own bogey-free brilliance.

Els finished winless on the PGA Tour for the first time in his career last season and has followed with a floundering 2006, severely hampered by a left knee injury suffered while inadvisably inner-tubing in the Mediterranean last August.

“It’s been a tough 12 months, to be honest with you,” said Els, who refrained from discussing the knee for most of the last year because he doesn’t believe in excuses. “It’s been almost a year now, and I’ve had a rough time with the game and the injury. … But I’m ready to play now again, and I’m in a really nice position and looking forward to the weekend.”

The primary contender among an elite pack that includes Chris DiMarco (135), two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (136), Spanish stalwart Miguel Angel Jimenez (137) and Australian comer Adam Scott (137), Els has certainly suffered his share of setbacks at Tiger’s hands, finishing runner-up to Woods seven times over the years. But now that he’s healthy, few players are more equipped to tangle with Tiger than Els, who at Muirfield in 2002 added a claret jug to his pair of U.S. Open titles (1994 and 1997).

Els finished runner-up to Tiger twice in the majors during Woods’ mystifying run through the 2000 season, but perhaps only Woods himself has more raw ability than the sturdy South African. And after a two-year absence from major contention, Els seems ready to compete with the game’s titan once again.

“I’ve played with Tiger so many times,” said Els by way of explaining he felt more respect than awe for his counterpart. “I wasn’t going to back down today. I’ve been through too much to go off right now. … I’ve got to do my thing, play my game, play to my strengths, and we’ll shake hands at the end.”

Though all eyes will be on the battle between Woods and Els, a total of 71 players survived the Open cut at 1-under (143), a score that matched the lowest to qualify for the weekend at a major since the 1990 Open at St. Andrews. And while six of the top 10 players in the world rankings are also among the top 10 on the Open leader board (Jim Furyk and Sergio Garcia at 139 joining Woods, Els, Goosen and Scott), a handful of notables won’t be in attendance this weekend at Hoylake.

Heading the group who failed to qualify for the final 36 holes are third-ranked Vijay Singh (146) and No. 13 Colin Montgomerie (148).

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