SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods made one last birdie as the rain picked up strength Friday, and what he left behind was a gloomy forecast for everyone else at Torrey Pines.
He had a two-shot lead at the tournament he already has won six times.
He is driving the ball long and straight, just what he needs to handle the par 5s – he has played them in 9 under so far.
And when it comes to experience, he has a 74-0 advantage in PGA Tour wins against the next seven guys on the leaderboard.
Woods knows better than to chalk up another win in the Farmers Insurance Open, so when asked about his name atop the leaderboard after a 7-under 65 on the North Course, he was quick to point out, “We have a long way to go.”
Even so, this had all the trappings of another Tiger show at Torrey Pines.
Woods didn’t miss a shot during a four-hole stretch around the turn on the North Course that included a 5-iron to 5 feet for eagle and a wedge that one-hopped off the pin to set up birdie. It carried him to a two-shot lead over Billy Horschel going into the weekend.
Asked whether he played better when everything was going well in his life, Woods waited out the long question with a short answer.
“I feel good right now,” said Woods, who was at 11-under 133. “I’m leading the tournament.”
Horschel, who had to go back to Q-school to get his card last year, had a 69 on the South Course to get into the final group.
“It’s a good day and I’m excited about tomorrow – I get to play with Tiger,” Horschel said. “I found out when I tapped in for par. I realized he was leading and I was in second place. So yeah, looking forward to that.”
For Woods, it was his first outright lead going into the weekend against a full field since the Australian Open in 2011 (he finished third at The Lakes), and his first time atop the leaderboard at Torrey Pines since 2008. Then again, he has only played one time at this event since then when he was just starting to change his swing.
And while this looks ominous for everyone else, Woods with a 36-hole lead – even at Torrey Pines – doesn’t mean this is over. He had a 34-10 record when he has at least a share of the 36-hole lead, though he has failed to win four of the last six times from that spot.
“Vintage (at)TigerWoods today,” Dustin Johnson said on Twitter after finishing eight shots behind.
Woods caught a break in the draw by playing the easier North – it’s about 600 yards shorter – on a day of light rain, a late breeze and soft conditions. But he kept the ball in play off the tee, and he only got in trouble once. That was on the par-4 eighth hole when he drove into a tough lie in the bunker, and it led to his only bogey.
There’s a simple formula for playing the North – make birdie on the par 5s and pick up a few more on the short par 4s. And that’s just what he did.
Woods missed birdie putts inside 8 feet on the opening two holes and was taking baby steps until he took off. It started with a 25-foot birdie putt on the 17th. He followed with the 5-iron that landed just left of the pin on the 18th, a two-putt birdie on the par-5 first hole, and his wedge that took one hop, struck the flag and settled 4 feet away.
“Drive the ball well here, and you’re going to probably have four iron shots into the par 5s,” Woods said. “You sprinkle that in with probably four or five wedge shots in there, a round of 6- or 7-under par is definitely conceivable.”
Brad Fritsch, a rookie from Canada, had a 67 on the South Course to lead the group of six players at 8-under 136. The others were Casey Wittenberg, Steve Marino, Jimmy Walker, Josh Teater and Erik Compton, whom Woods referred to as “remarkable” for being a two-time heart transplant recipient and being on the PGA Tour.
Defending champion Brandt Snedeker didn’t fare so well. After opening with a 65 on the North, he made only one birdie and twice took bogey on the par 5s on his way to a 75 that left him seven shots behind. K.J. Choi, who had a 65 on the South Course, couldn’t break par on the easier North and had a 73 to fall five behind.
Phil Mickelson struggled to keep his hands dry in the wet weather and finished bogey-bogey on the South for a 71 to make the cut on the number, though his work isn’t over. There were 87 players who made the cut at 1-under 143, meaning there will be another cut to top 70 and ties today.
Mike Weir, meanwhile, made the cut for the first time since July 2011 despite a sloppy finish for a 75 on the South. He was tied for 41st at 3-under 141.
Woods is coming off a missed cut in Abu Dhabi last week to start his year.
“I’ve had beautiful practice sessions at home,” he said. “If I can do it there, I can do it out here. Even though last week I played only two days, I felt like I hit the ball well enough to shoot a better score than I did. I had a couple of days to work on it, and I came out here and felt pretty good about it.”
The final two rounds move to the South Course, which played about 1½ shots harder Friday in the rain. The greens are more receptive, sure, but the course figures to play at full length in wet conditions and at sea level.
“It was amazing how different it played from Wednesday,” Walker said. “I played the pro-am here on Wednesday on the South, and you could hardly stop a ball. And today, it didn’t matter if you hit a 3-iron in there, it would just stop immediately. You could spin wedges. So it was a lot different, and it played a lot longer too.”
Not only have the seven players behind Woods not won on tour, four of them had to get cards this year through either Q-school or the Web.com Tour.
But with 36 holes left, more than just those seven are still in the mix. Nick Watney played the first two rounds with Woods was only four shots behind, along with Ross Fisher of England. Charles Howell III, who has tied for third and lost in a playoff in his two starts this year, had a 72 on the South and was five shots behind.
Horschel wades into a big world today, but he believes he has the experience from when he played the Walker Cup in 2007 at Royal County Down.
There was a guy I competed against three times called Rory McIlroy,” Horschel said. “So there may have been 10, 12,000 people following us, and only a couple thousand following the rest of the groups. So I’ve dealt with crowds. I guess it’s a little bit easier playing with Tiger because I guess the group ahead, they move a lot or something. Just hearing what media says. It’s going to be exciting.”