He’s definitely back.
Tiger Woods entered this year’s Masters perched atop the player rankings and the almost-prohibitive favorite to wear the green jacket, but doubts lingered.
No one should doubt it after his remarkable bogey Friday afternoon on No. 15, a par-5 that had surrendered the most eagles (12) and the second-most birdies (64) to date.
That’s right: a bogey. A misfire that dropped him out of a four-way tie for the lead on his way to a two-day total of 141 (3-under-par). Woods is well within striking distance of his fifth Masters title, three strokes behind leader Jason Day.
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“Yeah, my ball striking was so good today,” Woods said. “Even my misses were on top of flags.”
On Woods’ third shot from 70 yards out on No. 15, the ball tagged the pin and backspun into the water.
Instead of taking a drop close to the green, Woods stayed put and asked for a redux. The result — a virtual carbon copy wedge that missed the pin and set him up for the one-putt bogey. It was definitive proof the fearless golfer who once dominated the sport was back to fight for his crown.
“I went down to the drop area and that wasn’t going to be a good spot, because, obviously, it’s into the grain, it’s really grainy there,” Wood said. “So I went back to where I played it from, but I went two yards further back and I took, tried to take two yards off the shot of what I felt I hit. It worked out perfectly.”
The round was vintage Woods — constantly getting into trouble only to climb out of whatever hole he had dug. The only time he came up short was on the final hole, where he three-putted No. 18 for the first time in his career.
The drama surrounding Woods overshadowed a classic Cinderella story.
Day put together Friday’s best round, carding a 68 to take the lead at 6-under (138). Day made his Masters debut in 2011 and wowed with a second-day 64. He would go on to finish second to Charl Schwartzel.
The 25-year-old Australian withdrew with an injury after shooting a 76 on Thursday in 2012.
“It just feels like every shot is the biggest shot you’ve hit in your life,” Day said. “It’s just really difficult, and I’m glad to be in the clubhouse right now.”
This time, he methodically marched up the leader board, shooting a 33 on the back nine with birdies on Nos. 10, 11, 13 and 16. In seven rounds at Augusta, Day has shot par or better six times and in the 60s three times.
Impressive, considering on Friday four players cracked 70.
“It’s really difficult because it’s a major,” Day said. “So many people are watching you hit your shots, so many people are watching you around the world. … I was just trying to breathe as much as I could.”
Fred Couples and Marc Leishman are one stroke behind Day at 5-under. Angel Cabrera, Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker are at 4-under. Adam Scott, Jason Dufner, David Lynn, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose and K.J. Choi joined Woods in a large contingent at 3-under.
The day wasn’t without controversy. For the first time, a one-stroke penalty was assessed for slow play. The culprit: 14-year-old Chinese amateur Guan Tianlang.
Tianlang was slapped with the penalty on his second shot at No. 17 after being warned four holes earlier. Golfers are given 40 seconds to take their shots. Tianlang at times took significantly more time. He finished at 4-over and was the last golfer to make the weekend cut.
Like Woods, several golfers chased the top of the leader board before falling back in the pack. Dustin Johnson briefly reached 7-under before giving away six strokes during a five-hole finish that included two bogeys and a pair of double-bogeys.
Sergio Garcia got to 6-under with a birdie on No. 1, but that would be as good as it got. He backslid to 2-under by day’s end.
“But even with everything that happened today, we are still in a decent position to, hopefully, do something on the weekend,” Garcia said.
Day, of course, is in the best position.
“I love this place and everything I can do, I want to peak at this event,” Day said. “It’s the best tournament in the world and I really enjoy coming back here. … Not too many people can say they’ve had the lead at the Masters, and I’m just looking forward to the weekend.”