ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – As Tiger Woods finished the second round within two shots of the lead at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, rivals relished seeing signs of the Woods of old on Friday.
He finished with a 3-under 69 to be 5 under for the tournament and tied for fourth, two shots back of surprise Danish leader Thorbjorn Olesen (67).
Woods started slowly and came to life on the back nine, hitting three birdies over five holes. He dropped a shot on the 16th after an errant drive landed in deep rough, one of his two bogeys on the day.
Still, playing partners Rory McIlroy (72) and Luke Donald (72) enjoyed watching up close Woods’ threatening short game and his renowned ability to shape even the most difficult of shots.
“He’s definitely got the ball under control. He seems comfortable. He’s only had a couple of bogeys in two days,” McIlroy said. “He’s not making many mistakes and he’s very consistent, his ball flight looks good. Really looking forward to battling over the weekend.”
After saving par on 18, Woods expressed satisfaction with his round.
“I made a couple putts here and there but it was tough out there,” he said. “The greens got a little quicker, a little bit drier and the rough is certainly getting deeper and more lush.”
Olesen, a runner-up three times in his rookie season last year, led at 7 under by one shot over 18-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero (65) and Northern Ireland’s Gareth Maybin (70).
Woods was another shot back with six others, including McIlroy and Robert Karlsson of Sweden (72).
McIlroy incurred a two-shot penalty for brushing away sand in front of his ball which sat on the fringe of the 9th.
A group of five were at 4 under, including Sergio Garcia (69), Padraig Harrington (69), and Charl Schwartzel (70).
The top-ranked Donald (72) struggled with his drives and stood at 1 under, six shots back. No. 3-ranked Lee Westwood (72) was par for the tournament, surviving the cut by two strokes.
Not so fortunate was fourth-ranked Martin Kaymer (73), the three-time winner and defending champion. At 6 over he missed the cut, along with British Open winner Darren Clark (81), Colin Montgomerie (76), and Branden Grace (73), winner of the Joburg Open and Volvo Champions in the last two weeks.
Woods had a bogey-free first round but admitted the greens were fooling him. He seemed to sort them out on Friday, making several key putts including a 10-footer for his final birdie on 15. But he said players “were grinding along” and that it was anyone’s tournament to win with the leaderboard featuring nine players within two shots of Olesen.
The 14-time major winner was optimistic the changes in his swing instituted by new coach Sean Foley were starting to pay dividends.
“Certainly I have much more experience within the system and I’ve grown to understand what Sean wants me to do and how my body is going to do those things and produce the numbers he wants me to produce,” Woods said. “If you would have asked me (six to eight months ago) if I would understand the system as well as I do and the numbers I’m producing, I probably would have said no. … Now I do and when we talk, it’s very simple.”
While Woods was the picture of consistency, McIlroy took fans on a roller-coaster ride after holding a share of the lead after the first round.
The U.S. Open champion opened with a bogey and double bogey after an errant drive and some shaky putting. He bounced back with three birdies before carding a double bogey on the 9th when he was penalized for brushing away sand in front of his ball — after Donald spotted the infraction and called him on it.
But rather than get rattled, McIlroy went on to produce two birdies on the next three holes to end at even par.
“Obviously that wasn’t the best start, 3 over through three and I battled back really well to get it back to even par after eight,” McIlroy said. “Made a mistake on 9 when I brushed the sand off the green, wasn’t thinking clearly and a penalty there. Felt like I played the back nine well, and even par, considering everything that happened out there today, is a decent score.”
Players are allowed to brush away sand on the green but not on the fringe.
The rounds of the day came from Manassero, who enjoyed a bogey-free round with seven birdies, and Olesen, who had seven birdies in his first 12 holes. The 21-year-old Dane said he could scarcely believe he was leading such a star-studded field.
“For me it’s very special. It’s not many years ago I was watching them on TV,” Olesen said. “I know it’s tough, but I’m trying to keep playing my own game and do my best.”
Kaymer shrugged off his putting troubles as “a little bit of a rough period for me these last couple of days.”
“Expectations were very high,” he said. “When you go to a tournament where you’ve played very well in the past, you expect you’re going to be successful somehow and it hasn’t happened this week. It’s OK. I practised hard in the winter and it will come together at some stage.”