LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Tiger Woods tried hard to turn his three-under-par 68 at Torrey Pines on Friday--which included a 30 on his second nine--into nothing special.
The phrases were right out of the buzz kill handbook: "I didn't do anything. I actually just kept patient. It was a big-time grind out there. It was nice."
But in the present, when it was happening, it was breathtaking. A supremely focused Woods unleashed free and flawless swings, making the specter of his recuperation from knee surgery--hard to ignore as he shortened the stride of his left leg walking to his ball--disappear as he sent out a string of majestic shots.
He also improved on what is turning into an exceptional week on the greens by curling in several perfectly calibrated putts. Through sheer brilliance--and by pulling himself to within one shot of Stuart Appleby's 36-hole lead of three-under 138--Woods took over a U.S. Open center stage framed by immense galleries amid a backdrop of deep green California foliage and a deep blue Pacific Ocean. Despite the limp, it evoked his 2000 victory march at Pebble Beach.
When Woods reached full flight in the late afternoon with birdies on the first, second, fourth, fifth and ninth holes, it was a reminder of how much golf has missed him in the last two months. On the other hand, Woods was right. The round was a testament to patience. Without it, his first nine holes would have been the beginning of a slide out of the championship.
Woods began the day with a three-putt for bogey from 50 feet on the 10th. It was his second straight three-putt counting the 18th on Thursday, and it seemed that the only reason steam wasn't visible from his ears was due to the heavy mist of the coastal marine layer.
He also bogeyed the long, par-4 12th. An explosive eagle on the par-5 13th, where Woods negotiated the 599 yards with a 335-yard drive and a 266-yard 5-wood to 10 feet, seemed to right the ship, but Woods followed with bogeys on the 16th, 17th and a par on the par-5 18th, where he drove into a fairway bunker. "I feel like I lost three shots there," he said. "The tees were way up on 18."
But throughout the frustrating stretch, which saw him drop to three over par for the tournament, Woods kept a cool equanimity. It could have been taken as resignation. Perhaps the knee was hurting, or worse, malfunctioning. Perhaps he had accepted that he simply wasn't competitively ready after eight weeks off. But really, Woods was practicing a champion's mindset. "Patience" may be the hoariest of post-round interview words, but like "one shot at a time," only the very best can truly execute the concept.
And when you have as much game as Woods, patience is the most important virtue. Because when the good stuff comes, it is so worth waiting for.
As for the knee, Woods not surprisingly kept up his evasive ways. "People want to know," he allowed. "People are curious. And all I can tell you is that it's sore. It is what it is. Nothing more, nothing less." In other words, nothing from nothing leaves nothing.
The strongest reaction Woods had to any question was about his reaction to the Lakers' collapse against the Celtics on Thursday night. "Oh, man, that was a tough night," said a genuinely anguished Woods. "Man, that was a tough night."
But when asked if was in the zone on his second nine, Woods went right back to his safe island of understatement. "It just feels it's a nice rhythm," he said. "Been there before . . . shot some good rounds doing that."
Pay no attention. What Woods did Friday was a shout out that he is everything he used to be. And by Sunday--if he can capture his 14th major championship--he will be even more.