AUGUSTA, Ga. — Finding himself in a familiar position heading to the weekend at Augusta National, Tiger Woods flashed a smile that oozed with confidence.
The kind of smile that harkens back to the days of Jack Nicklaus and what they used to say about him:
He knows he’s going to beat you — and he knows that you know he’s going to beat you.
Back in his element after a humiliating sex scandal, Woods headed to Saturday’s third round of the Masters in the next-to-last group, which means his return to the game from a five-month layoff is going better than anyone could have expected.
Anyone, that is, except Woods.
He came to this historic green patch of east Georgia with only one thing on his mind: a fifth green jacket. If this continues for another 36 holes, he might very well be wearing one.
Woods followed a 4-under 68 in the opening round with a rock-solid 70 in tougher conditions Friday, leaving him a mere two strokes behind a pair of Englishmen who share the lead, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood.
The third round began on another sunny, warm day with the field whittled down to 48 players. Defending champion Angel Cabrera, who needed a clutch putt at No. 18 Friday just to make the cut, teed off in the first group with Robert Allenby.
But things will really pick up in the afternoon.
So, Tiger, do you like your spot on the leaderboard?
“Yeah,” Woods said, smiling so broadly that he almost looked a bit bashful about showing so much assuredness, “I do.” Why wouldn’t he?
In three of his four Masters wins, this is where he seized control. Lurking back just a bit at the midway point, he surged to the lead in the third round — wiping out a six-stroke deficit to Chris DiMarco in 2005, coming back from four shots down to Vijay Singh in ’02, passing DiMarco in ’01 after trailing by two strokes at the 36-hole mark.
He’s two shots behind this time with a 6-under 138. Also worth noting: Neither of the guys ahead of him has a major championship on his resume.
“I felt I could put myself in contention,” Woods said. “I didn’t have the luxury of playing tournaments coming in here, so I had to be more focused on my practice sessions coming into it and then take more out of them than most people would.” No one likes to see Woods lurking on the leaderboard. Then again, no one is prepared to give him the green jacket just yet, least of all Poulter.
He’s always been known for his bold fashion and over-the-top bravado, which was never more evident than when he insisted a few years ago that it would just be him and Woods at the top of the golfing world if Poulter could only play to his potential.
Everyone chuckled, especially since Poulter had not even won a tournament on U.S. soil until his victory this year at the Match Play Championship.
But he’s been a runner-up at the British Open, and believes it just might be his time to break through in a major. He’s certainly off to a good start, opening with back-to-back 68s.
“I would say it’s one of the best rounds of golf I’ve played in a while,” Poulter said Friday, knowing the second of those matching numbers was more impressive, given how much they toughened up Augusta National for Day Two.
“I am more aggressive on the golf course and you have to be aggressive to your targets around this place. You can’t let this course intimidate you too much, because you’ll be backing away from shots you should be taking on.” Few players are as brash as Poulter, starting with his colorful clothes. He wore all pink in the final round of the 2006 U.S. Open, a bold move before a New York gallery, and once wore Union Jack trousers at the British Open.
Asked what would go best with a green jacket, Poulter didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely anything,” he said.
Westwood endured a wild ride on his way to a 69. He had everything from an eagle to a double-bogey on his card, but it all added up to a share of the lead.
He’d sure like to be in that position after two more days, after coming within one putt of getting into a playoff in the 2008 U.S. Open and last year’s British Open.
“It’s the only thing really missing in my career,” Westwood said. “Obviously it would mean a lot to win a major championship. I’ve come close over the last couple of years … and I know I’ve got the game and I know I’ve got the temperament. It’s just going that one step further and finishing it off.” Westwood didn’t seem the least bit concerned that Woods was lurking, having played with him in the final round of the 2008 U.S. Open, the one where Woods went on to beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff on a shredded knee.
“That’s not really an issue,” Westwood said. “And I learned a few things, stuff I’m not going to share, because I think if you get into these situations and learn stuff, what’s the point of passing it on? That’s what going through these experiences is all about.” On Saturday, he’ll be playing with his countryman and good friend, Poulter.
“I suppose it helps a little bit because we get on pretty well, but I don’t think it has much effect,” Westwood said. “We won’t be cracking jokes on each other’s back swings.” There are plenty of others capable of derailing Woods’ desire for a 15th major title, which would leave him just three away from Nicklaus’ record.
Phil Mickelson already has two Masters wins, and it looks as though he’s snapping out of a sluggish start to 2010 at just the right time. Swinging from his heels, he had a couple of birdies coming down the stretch for a 71 that left him tied with Woods.
“I just love this place,” Lefty said. “There’s enough room to recover. There’s not this big, heavy rough. Underneath the pine trees, you have swings, you have a shot. And because of that, I feel like I can make a mistake. It frees up my golf swing, and I swing harder every drive here at Augusta than I do any other week. If I miss a couple, I’m still able to have a shot to get it up by the green and let my short game save par.” Also in the group at 138 was Anthony Kim, the sassy young American coming off a win last week at Houston; Ricky Barnes, a surprising runner-up at last year’s U.S. Open; and K.J. Choi, who played with Woods over the first two rounds and matched him stroke for stroke, and will be paired with him again on Saturday.
Don’t forget about Y.E. Yang, either. The unheralded South Korean is the only golfer to knock off Woods in a major when he had a lead going to the final round, winning last year’s PGA Championship. Yang is right in the mix again at 139.
But everyone knows Woods is the guy to beat as long as he’s anywhere near the lead at Augusta. If anything, he seems to be using golf to block out the revelations about all his extramarital affairs and the uncertain state of his marriage.
“It feels good, it feels really good,” Woods said, even if he was just talking about what’s going on inside the ropes. “It feels good to be back and in contention. You know, I usually put myself in contention … here, and this year I’m right there.” As if he’d never even been away.