- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tiger Woods’ ultimate genius is most evident on his off days.

The AT&T; National host survived a spotty ball-striking round at Congressional on Friday by turning a would-be 70 into a 66 with his magical short game, surging past the field to plant his name atop the leader board at 10 under.

“Today I hit the ball a little bit scratchy at times,” said the 33-year-old, who leads Australian Rod Pampling by one stroke. “I didn’t drive the ball as well as I did [Thursday] or hit my irons as crisp. … It was nice to actually get a score out of it. I didn’t shoot myself in the foot.”

Forget Thursday’s sparkling 64. Friday’s manufactured 66 was a far more impressive demonstration of Woods’ greatness.

Consider his shaky stretch between Nos. 17 and 3: On those holes, Woods missed three of four fairways and four greens… yet still gained ground on the field. Woods scrambled his way to four up-and-down pars through the stretch and added an unlikely birdie at No. 1 after rescuing a bunkered drive with a pitching wedge to inside six feet.

Among the myriad strengths that place him among golf’s greatest, perhaps efficiency belongs at the head of the list. Woods is the all-time leader in the clubhouse when it comes to squeezing every stroke out of every round.

Of course, Woods’ second round wasn’t a Houdini exhibition. Before and after his rough patch, Woods thrilled the largest local galleries seen at Congressional since the 1997 U.S. Open by staking approaches that led to point-blank birdies on Nos. 13, 15 and 8. He added another birdie of the two-putt variety on the par-5 16th.

Unfortunately for the sake of suspense, first-round leader Anthony Kim (8 under) couldn’t match Woods’ morning march in the afternoon. Kim’s attempt to back up Thursday’s course-record 62 resulted in a erratic demonstration from the streaky 24-year-old with just one top-10 finish this season.

“I hate the way I hit the ball today,” Kim said after finding just five of 14 fairways during his even-par tour of Old Blue’s outer reaches. “But if I can stay positive and stay focused, I’ll be in good shape.”

Only one of the 76 players who survived the cut at 2 over can make such a claim with a straight face. Well, maybe Jim Furyk (fourth at 7 under) could do it with only a slight smirk. Furyk has the event’s best track record, tying for third in each of the AT&T;’s first two editions. The 39-year-old followed his opening 66 with a 67 to once again put himself in the mix at Congressional.

But the AT&T; National is Tiger’s to lose. Woods’ record from the 36-hole pole is 31-6. He has won 11 straight events when he has held or shared the 36-hole lead, dating to the 2004 Byron Nelson Classic, when Sergio Garcia clipped him.

“There’s nothing wrong with stats. It’s just reiterating what he’s done and telling the truth,” said Furyk, who settled for second to Woods a month ago at the Memorial. “We all know he’s tough to get the lead from when he gets out front. He’s playing real well right now, so we’ve all got our hands full. We have to chase.”

In Woods’ post-round news conference, the 14-time major champion revealed that he feels “probably better than I have in over 10 years” thanks to the complete recovery of his surgically repaired left knee. Given his success in that decade, the notion of battling an even stronger, healthier Woods has to be deflating to the 75 players faced with the task of chasing him down.

“I need to hit the ball better than I did today - just clean up my round,” Woods said. “If I can hit the ball like I did [Thursday] and putt like I did [Friday], we’ll be looking all right.”

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