- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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Much like Mickelson two weeks ago at Doral, Woods has seen his game greatly aided by his proficiency around the greens at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He has chipped in three times for birdies through two rounds at the Bay Hill Club, and is holding steady in fifth place at 3 under par, 5 shots behind second-round leader Sean O'Hair.
That is not as often as Mickelson did in winning the CA Championship, but combine Woods' scrambling skills for pars over the last 36 holes and there has been quite the display of short-game prowess by the game's top two ranked players in recent weeks.
Mickelson, who is not playing at Bay Hill, attributed his rediscovered short-game success to a new DVD called "Phil Mickelson: Secrets of the Short Game." Perhaps it was just marketing hype, but Mickelson said the production of the DVD -- meant to aid amateurs with their chipping and putting -- forced him to simplify his own routine. "I've never chipped or hit better bunker shots as well," Mickelson said.
That's saying something for a player renowned for his short-game talents, although it is safe to say Woods was not on the mailing list -- nor did he need the help.
It has been generally accepted that while Woods was away for eight months rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee, the one thing he could do -- the only thing for some time -- was hit chip shots and putts.
Although his putting was slow to come around at the Accenture Match Play Championship and CA Championship, he has needed just 49 putts through two rounds, including 25 on Friday when he shot 69, putting himself in contention for his sixth title at this tournament.
Much of that is attributable to his ability to scramble around the greens and give himself some short putts. Woods has hit only 18 of 36 greens through two rounds, but has just three bogeys and a double-bogey.
"He's practiced it a lot more," said Woods' coach, Hank Haney, of his short game. "That was the first thing he started doing. He's practiced a lot of different shots."
Woods holed a bunker shot during his second-round loss to Tim Clark at the Match Play. He chipped in for a birdie at Doral, where he said he hit the ball better than he has so far at Bay Hill. Here, he's twice chipped in for birdie on his opening hole and added another at the eighth hole -- his 17th -- on Friday.
The first chip-in on Thursday was a thing of beauty, a 33-yard lob shot from a fairway lie over a bunker. Woods was looking at bogey to start the tournament.
"I'm looking at it like he could start with a double[-bogey] here," said Mark Wilson, who played with Woods during the first two rounds. "It's an easy shot to hit short, leave in the rough and not get that one up and down. Then he hits a beautiful shot that leaves a ball mark and then rolls like a putt right into the middle of the hole. That was an impressive start to the day."
Padraig Harrington, who also played with Woods during the first two rounds, said, "I don't think I've ever seen a finer exhibition."
For what it's worth, Woods has never chipped in three times during the first two rounds of any nonmajor stroke-play event, going all the way back to the 1996 Quad City Classic.
Woods acknowledged that his time away from competitive golf allowed him to put more effort into that aspect of his game, although he suggested his success this week is due more to rounds -- now up to eight and counting, if you include his abbreviated Match Play rounds -- in competition.
"When I first came back at Match Play, I didn't feel my short game was very good," Woods said. "It got a little better every day at Doral and then this week is even better. It's just getting my feel back. It's a little different than chipping at home. We don't have rough like this, so it was kind of nice to get out here and experience that and actually get my feel."
Whatever the case, something is working.
Now if Woods can only straighten out the long game that was seemingly so good at Doral but seems to be letting him down here. He's had some wayward misses, including a couple on Friday that forced him to waste shots by chipping sideways. One occurred in a bunker on the par-4 first hole (his 10th) and the other at the par-5 sixth, where he hit a poor second shot and had to chip away from a bunker.
But he got it up and down from 100 yards to save par, then saved par again at the seventh hole when chipping from 30 feet. At the next hole, the eighth, he chipped in from 40 feet.
"I'm a little bit frustrated in the sense that I haven't controlled my [ball] flight as well this week," Woods said. "I was really flighting it pretty good at Doral, and I'm not flighting it as well here. I like to be able to control my trajectory a little bit better, especially when the wind is blowing like this."
Woods said that his concentration is fully on winning Bay Hill, that he does not hit shots with the Masters in mind.
But he will head to Augusta National in less than two weeks clearly with less preparation for the year's first major championship than he has ever had as a pro.
Woods has never showed up at the Masters with fewer than five official worldwide tournaments under his belt, and this year it will be only three -- and just a total of 10 competitive rounds.
Interestingly, before his last three victories -- 2005, 2002, 2001 -- Woods had played at least seven times before the Masters.
Whether he can make up for that kind of lost time remains to be seen.
But when he is getting up and down from everywhere, maybe it won't matter.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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