Tiger stalking Brits

Two of England’s best are atop the leaderboard at a major for the first time. Phil Mickelson is back in the hunt, rejuvenated by Augusta National. Anthony Kim, the sassy young American, has his swagger back.

Tiger Woods acknowledges applause during the second round of the Masters in Augusta

Tiger Woods acknowledges applause during the second round of the Masters in Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Two of England’s best are atop the leaderboard at a major for the first time. Phil Mickelson is back in the hunt, rejuvenated by Augusta National. Anthony Kim, the sassy young American, has his swagger back.

And a Masters that seems to have unlimited possibilities gets even more compelling with one improbability.

Tiger Woods is right there in the middle of it all.

“I usually put myself in contention most of the time here,” Woods said Friday after a 2-under 70 that put him two shots behind Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter. “And this year, I’m right there.”

He made it sound so matter-of-fact, as if this is where he is supposed to be. What makes it all so surprising — to most everybody except him — is where Woods had been.

A swift and spectacular downfall from a sex scandal kept Woods out of golf for five months. He has been humiliated in the media for confessions of cheating on his wife, returning to public life at a major that can jangle nerves even in peaceful times.

“Never would we really second-guess his ability on the golf course,” Matt Kuchar said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

And the best of this Masters is still to come.

Poulter, who once boasted that it would be just him and Woods when he reached his potential, made his only bogey on the 18th hole for a second straight 68. Westwood had everything from an eagle to a double bogey in his wild round of 69.

They were at 8-under 136, the first time either of them has been in the lead in a major.

Mickelson needed a birdie on the 18th hole to be paired with Woods, just as they were in the final round last year. His 65-foot putt banged off the back of the cup before spinning away, giving Lefty a 71.

“To only be two back, to be in third place going into the weekend . . . there’s nothing like being in contention on the weekend at Augusta National,” Mickelson said as he goes after a third green jacket. “There’s no better feeling in the game. There’s nothing you dream of more. I’m within two shots. I’m playing very well, and I feel like I’m right on the edge.”

Woods, has won the Masters all three times when going into the weekend in a tie for third or better. He and Mickelson were at 138, along with Kim, K.J. Choi and Ricky Barnes.

Y.E. Yang, who rallied to beat Woods at the PGA Championship eight months ago, had a 72 and was at 5-under 139.

Brights Grove, Ont., native Mike Weir shot even par and is 1-under 143, seven shots back.

“There’s a great buzz on the golf course,” said Poulter, who played the first two days in front of Woods. “I was happy to tee off when I did. The crowds are 10-deep. That’s always good. I think the tournament is a good one.”

Westwood pulled himself out of a deep slump to regain his status as the best in Europe, and he has been closing in on an elusive major. He came within one putt of getting into a playoff in the U.S. Open in 2008 and the British Open last year.

“It makes me sort of feel that I can contend in these big events now that my game is up to this level,” Westwood said. “All in all, I’m delighted the way things are going.”

It was a wild ride, for sure.

Westwood moved quickly to the top of the leaderboard with a 6-iron into 18 inches for eagle on the second hole, and he had two tries at an eagle at the par 5s on the back nine. But there also was a hook into the trees on the 14th that led to double bogey, and another tee shot into the pines on the 18th that kept him from the outright lead.

Westwood didn’t seem the least bit concerned that Woods was lurking.

“I played with Tiger the last round of the U.S. Open (both shot 73 at Torrey Pines), so that’s not really an issue,” he said. “And I learned a few things, stuff I’m not going to share, because I think if you get into these situations and learn stuff, what’s the point of passing it on? That’s what going through these experiences is all about.”

Poulter began making his move on the par-3 12th with a shot over the bunker to about 8 feet for birdie. There was muted applause, partly because it’s difficult for the fans to see the green, and partly because most of them weren’t watching.

“Tiger was on the 11th green,” Poulter said with a grin.

Few players are as brash as Poulter, starting with his stylish, colourful clothes. He wore all pink in the final round of the 2006 U.S. Open, a bold move before a New York gallery, and once wore Union Jack trousers at the British Open.

Asked what would go best with a green jacket, Poulter didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely anything,” he said.

As for that boast about joining Woods atop the world ranking one day?

“If I win this week, I’ll probably go to No. 2, which would be lovely,” Poulter said. “So I guess it’s a work in progress. I’m working towards that. So we’ll see.”

But it’s more than just Poulter and Woods. It’s even more than Poulter and Westwood.

Seven players — five of them among the top 15 in the world — were separated by two shots going into the weekend at a course that is getting faster by the day under warm sunshine and scary, swirling wind.

For all the fuss over who would get stuck playing in the Woods’ circus, Choi matched him shot-for-shot over the first two days, and they will play together Saturday in the penultimate group behind the English pair. An Asian-born male had never won a major until Yang stunned the world by becoming the first player to win a major where Woods held the 54-hole lead. Could it be two in a row for Asia?

Barnes, despite only having two top-10 finishes in his PGA Tour career, is not likely to be intimidated by Woods. They played together at the Masters in 2003 when Woods was the defending champion and Barnes the U.S. Amateur champion, and Barnes was six shots better.

Kim is among the most talented young Americans, with three victories and a starring role in the Ryder Cup two years ago. They were paired in the final round of the AT&T National last summer, where Woods won.

“I’m trying to win this golf tournament and obviously he is, too,” Kim said. “I’ve just got to go out there and play my game.”

The ageless champions fell back.

Fred Couples, coming off his Masters-best 66 in the opening round, remained atop the leaderboard for much of his morning round until closing with three straight bogeys for a 75. Tom Watson took two shots to get out of the bunker on the 18th hole for one last bogey in his round of 74. They were part of the group at 3-under 141, five shots behind.

On a tougher course with daunting hole locations, Woods had to work hard for his 70. He kept his round together by scrambling for pars and taking advantage of the par 5s — he has played them in 8-under for the week.

There were no planes toting suggestive banners Friday, only loads of support and plenty of applause. The crowds at Augusta National are used to seeing Woods in the hunt — he has not finished worse than sixth since 2005 — but this is not a normal year. Until Thursday, he had not hit a shot in competition since winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15.

“He’s a hell of a player,” Kuchar said after spending the last two days with Woods. “It’s pretty amazing. I have no idea what he’s been doing the last 144 days.”

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