POSTED: 2:20 p.m. HST, Apr 8, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 4:56 p.m. HST, Apr 8, 2011
AUGUSTA, Ga. — The fist kept pumping. The cheers kept growing. The ball kept dropping.
In the fading sunlight of Augusta National, Tiger Woods finally looked like himself again.
Rory McIlroy goes to the weekend at the Masters with a two-stroke lead, a worthy reward for two superb days of golf by the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland.
But all eyes will be on the guy who's three shots back, in a position that used to be more familiar. Woods shot a 6-under 66 Friday, his best round at the Masters since he captured the last of his four green jackets in 2005.
"I've played myself back in the championship," he said.
Woods hasn't gone this low at the Masters since he shot 65 in the third round of the '05 tournament when he went on to beat Chris DiMarco in a playoff.
A lot has changed since then. Woods is mired in the longest winless streak of his career — 20 tournaments over 17 months — and he's still dogged by a sex scandal that ended his marriage and tarnished his image.
After a sluggish start to the second round, Woods got going with three straight birdies around the turn, a perilous par save at the 11th, then strung together three more birdies through the middle of the back nine.
Woods just missed making it four in a row, pushing a slick putt at No. 16 wide of the putt. But he ended with a flourish, knocking his approach from under the trees to within 10 feet of the pin. He rolled that one in and pumped his fist one last time.
"Anytime you shoot 66 in a major, it's going to be good," Woods said. "I'm very pleased about that. Very pleased."
Rory McIlroy fretted about an errant chip that nearly slid into the water, a few putts that didn't fall in the cup on the back nine. That's about it.
The shaggy-haired kid put together another strong round, shooting a 69 that left him at 10-under 134 midway through the year's first major.
"I drove it good. I gave myself a lot of opportunities. I just didn't make as many putts as I would've liked on the back nine," McIlroy said. "But I can't really complain. I'm in the lead going to the weekend at the Masters."
He's clearly gotten over any bad memories from last year's British Open, where he opened with a 63 and fell apart the next day in a howling wind to shoot 80.
McIlroy went 29 holes before he made his first bogey at the picturesque 12th hole, where his tee shot plopped into a bunker and he couldn't get up and down. Otherwise, he showed a maturity beyond his years.
Among those he will be trying to hold off is Woods, who played in the next-to-last group and got off to a rough start. His very first tee shot found a bunker, leading to bogey. He took another with a weak chip at No. 3, the shortest par-4 on the course. Then another with three putts at the seventh.
Then, suddenly, he resembled the Tiger of old.
"I just kept staying patient," Woods said. "That's all I was trying to do."
McIlroy will be paired in the final group Saturday with one of his playing partners from the first two days, Jason Day.
The 23-year-old Australian is another of golf's up-and-comers, and he showed no respect for a course he's playing for the first time this week. Day made eight birdies in the best round of the tournament, a 64 that sent him surging up the leaderboard. He's only two shots behind McIlroy's 10-under 134 total.
The third member of their group, 22-year-old Californian Rickie Fowler, also was in contention. He posted a 69 — meaning the threesome combined for a 14-under score — and was in a group at 139.
"It was fun playing with Rory and Rickie out there," Day said. "I can't even remember shooting 8 under. It was just a lot of great golf and I'm looking forward to the weekend."
Of course, this is all new to him.
"I'm sure I will be very nervous," Day said. "I'll try to relax tonight and just go out there and have fun."
While the focus at this Masters has been on youth, let's not forget the older guys.
Fred Couples, the 1992 champion, was in contention for the second year in a row. Even with a balky back, he strolled around the course as though he owns the place on the way to a 68 that took his score to 139.