DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Tiger Woods surged up the Dubai Desert Classic leaderboard by shooting a bogey-free 6-under 66 on Friday to pull him back in contention for his first tournament victory in more than a year.
Helped by stellar putting and a consistent short game, Woods sank six birdies in the low round of the day to total 7-under 137, four shots behind leader Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy followed his opening 65 with a 68 to maintain his lead going into the weekend at Emirates Golf Club. It was here two years ago that the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland earned his only European Tour victory.
Woods, who has been outdriving his playing partners, No. 1-ranked Lee Westwood and No. 2 Martin Kaymer, added accuracy to his blistering drives and approach shots on Friday. And unlike Thursday when he missed several makable putts and hit approach shots wide of the green, the winner of 14 majors routinely gave himself chances.
“It felt good today. I hit a lot of good shots,” said Woods, who likened his game on Friday to the way he played at last year’s Chevron World Challenge, where he lost in a playoff to U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell.
“I felt like I drove it pretty good and more than anything I controlled my traj (trajectory) which was nice,” he said. “I feel good. We worked out a few of the things last night that I didn’t like.”
McIlroy, who has struggled to meet expectations since winning the Quail Hollow Championship in 2010, said he was approaching his game with more patience this season. It seems to be paying dividends as he finished second in last month’s Abu Dhabi Championship.
McIlroy bogeyed the par-4 2nd hole then settled with five birdies over his last 12 holes, including on the 18th for the second day in a row.
“I thought after the start that I had, I really hung in there and stayed patient and just sort of picked up my birdies when I could,” McIlroy said. “I think I was 5 under from 7 onwards. So really pleased with the round, and (it) sets me up for a good weekend.”
Much of the talk going into the tournament was on the powerhouse group of Woods, Westwood and Kaymer. But only Woods delivered on Friday, with Westwood (70) at 5-under 139 and Kaymer (71) on 4 under.
Westwood had four birdies but bogeyed two of his last four holes, missing two makable putts. Kaymer, meanwhile, never seemed to get his game going, posting three birdies but also two bogeys in a row on his first six holes.
“I didn’t hit it so good. I didn’t give myself enough chances,” Westwood said. “It was just a plod round really, a bit of a boring day.”
Westwood, who last year struggled with a calf injury, said his distance has been suffering as has his control. It showed as his approach shots came up short, leaving him long putts on several holes that just missed or came up inches short.
“Distance control is poor when you are not striking it very well,” he said. “I’m just playing for the fat of the greens really and trying to make a few long ones which I haven’t, which is the reason I’m 5 under. Still in there with a chance.”
The unheralded Aiken, ranked 97th in the Official World Golf Ranking and known as much for his shoulder-length hair as for his swing, attributed his 67s in the first two rounds to the fact he’s “been hitting ball pretty solid this week.”
“Missed one green the whole day and I was on the fringe and I got to putt,” Aiken said. “Just been putting the ball in the right positions, and these greens are so pure that you’re going to sink some putts.”
Garcia, the former No. 2 slipped to 79, has shown the consistency this week that had been lacking last year by carding two bogey-free rounds to put him in contention.
“I think that probably putting has been the thing I’m doing the best these past three weeks,” said Garcia, who had a top-10 finish in Qatar last week. “It’s nice to see my game, my long game catching up with that.”
There was more at stake this weekend than the tournament title.
Westwood could lose the top ranking if Kaymer wins and he finishes lower than second, and if Kaymer finishes second and Westwood is out of the top 10. If Kaymer is tied for second, he could still become No. 1 for the first time if Westwood finishes out of the top 36.
Woods could move ahead of Kaymer if he wins and Kaymer finishes outside the top five but his recent form indicates he won’t be moving up the rankings soon.
Woods, who won this tournament in 2006 and 2008, said he could do even better going into a weekend where the forecast was for much windier conditions. Still, he said he relished his second round, picking out his sixth hole as emblematic of his day.
Woods drove the fairway on the 485-yard, par-4 hole and hit an 8-iron about 160 yards to within a foot of the pin, where he made an easy birdie putt. Much as he did with a monster drive on 18 on Thursday that led to an eagle, the shot brought cheers from the crowd and a reminder of how good Woods can be if he gets his game on track.