Commentary

Can Tiger Woods do it again?

Updated: April 9, 2011, 1:11 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The run up the scoreboard, once so routine, was on this day something to behold. A move into contention, once taken for granted, is now greeted with questions.

Can he do it again?

That is where Tiger Woods and his golf game reside heading into the third round of the Masters.

No longer is it a given that he will build on the 66 he shot Friday at Augusta National. No longer is it assumed he'll simply overtake those ahead of him and muscle his way into Sunday's final pairing.

After a year of starts and stops, flashes of greatness but also fits of mediocrity, the doubts persist.

To write Woods off at age 35 just because he has gone the longest stretch of his career without winning is far too premature. But to pronounce him back because of one round of golf is simply foolish.

Almost since the time Woods returned from his self-imposed exile at the 2010 Masters, he has rarely been able to back up good play with more good play.

In recent times, four of his past five under-par scores were followed by a round over par in his next competitive appearance.

Woods' 6-under-par effort Friday matched his lowest score of the year -- during the second round of the Dubai Desert Classic and then again during the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

The latter score helped him finish in the top 10 for the only time this year, although he was never in contention during the final round. The former helped him into contention in Dubai, where he shot 72-75 on the weekend and dropped to a tie for 20th.

The big question Saturday: Can Woods have success similar to that of Friday?

"I'm looking forward to it," said Woods, who trails leader Rory McIlroy by three shots and will play in the second-to-last group with K.J. Choi. "I played myself back in the tournament. I'm three back, and we have got a long way to go. It's going to be fun."

Woods kept it business-like afterward, as did his swing coach, Sean Foley, who was not making any bold pronouncements.

"We will just keep keeping on," Foley said.

Neither would say so, but the 66 had to be Woods' best round of the year, especially considering the circumstances.

He began the day in a tie for 24th place, then teed off in the second-to-last group as the conditions got more difficult. And he began poorly, making bogeys at two of the first three holes.

But birdies at the eighth and ninth, then another at the 10th, got him on a roll. He made a remarkable par save at the 11th after blowing his drive into the trees, then made three more birdies in a row at the 13th, 14th and 15th.

When he rolled in a 12-footer for birdie at the 18th, he had played the back nine in 31 strokes and his last 11 holes in 7 under par. Another good sign: Every time Woods made a bogey, he answered with a birdie.

"Any time you shoot 66 in a major, it's always going to be good,'' he said. "I'm very pleased about that.''

The 66 was his best score at Augusta National since he shot 65 during the third round of the 2005 tournament on the way to his fourth Masters victory.

Since then, he had shot in the 60s just four times before Friday, although this was his 16th consecutive round at par or better here.

Nowadays, however, he is not perceived as the lock that he was on his way to winning 14 major championships -- having gone a career-tying 10 majors without a victory.

"It's more than just Tiger trying to win this tournament,'' said Lee Westwood, who moved into a tie for seventh with a 67. "There are other guys on the leaderboard who can try and intimidate.

"But it's nice to see Tiger playing well. I think the tournaments and the game of golf are always better when Tiger is playing well and up there.''

Of late, it has been rare.

Woods' last victory as a pro came in November 2009 at the Australian Masters. His best finishes last year were ties for fourth at both the Masters and U.S. Open, where he shot an impressive 66 in the third round to put himself right there.

Then he shot 75 during the final round and saw Graeme McDowell win the title -- when 72 would have put him in a playoff.

Backing it up has remained an issue through the work with Foley, as this year's rather small body of work still suggests.

"It was nice to get it going today and it was nice to put myself only three back,'' Woods said.

Ahead of him are two players -- McIlroy and Jason Day -- who have played in fewer majors (12) than Woods has won (14). They both spoke of being inspired by his 1997 Masters victory -- when McIlroy was 7 and Day 9.

And there was a time when, quite possibly, they would have wilted in his midst.

Now, we don't know, do we?

"I'm just trying to put myself in the mix come Sunday,'' Woods said. "It's irrelevant who is there. My whole job is to get myself there with a chance with nine holes to go. That's what we have always done. I've been successful at it in the past by doing it that way.''

That, of course, seems like a long time ago.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com