Woods fires 8-under 64, leads Lefty by one at Doral

Updated: March 3, 2006, 9:59 AM ET
Associated Press

MIAMI -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson resumed their duel at opposite ends of Doral on Thursday, and the outcome didn't change.

Woods was still one shot better.

In a balmy start to the Florida swing, Woods again reached the 603-yard 12th hole in two shots and ran off a string of birdies along the back nine of the Blue Monster for an 8-under 64 and a one-shot lead over Mickelson and four others in the Ford Championship at Doral.

"This guy Tiger seems to play well every day, every week," Mickelson said. "I'm just trying to keep pace. I'm trying to maybe have another shot at dueling out with him on Sunday, and I'm glad that he's playing well. I've got to do my part and stay with him."

Woods won last year in a scintillating showdown between golf's two biggest personalities, with Woods pulling ahead on a 30-foot birdie putt at No. 17 and Mickelson lipping out a birdie chip on the last hole.

They teed off at the same time Thursday, but on opposite nines.

They were together only on the leaderboard, although both had some catching up to do on a day when 60 players broke 70 and 116 players were at par or better.

"The times I looked at the board, neither one of us were up there," Woods said. "We weren't leading. I knew 7 [under] was leading, so try to get up there somehow."

Woods got off to a hot start on a tropical afternoon with birdies on three of his first four holes, including a tee shot within a foot on the 222-yard fourth hole. Mickelson made three straight birdies around the turn, and while his gallery was about one-fourth the size of those watching Woods, they were as passionate as ever.

There were throaty cheers when Lefty made a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 5, and one man yelled, "Yeah! He's letting Tiger know that he's coming!"

At that point, Woods was only about 250 yards away as he walked down the 14th fairway. He hit 9-iron into 10 feet, the start of three straight birdies that shot him to the top of the leaderboard. His 64 was his best score in the first round on the PGA Tour since a 63 in the 2003 Western Open, which he went on to win by five.

It was sizzling stuff, even though it was only Thursday.

There are still three days left, and loads of other players capable of denying fans an encore.

Camilo Villegas, one of several promising rookies who hit the ball a mile, birdied four straight holes until settling for a two-putt par from about 8 feet on the 18th. That put him at 65, along with former PGA champion Rich Beem, Ryan Palmer and Mark Wilson, one of five players who got into this elite field with a top-10 finish in Tucson last week.

At times, it seemed like a replay from last year.

Woods had 282 yards to the hole on the monster 12th hole, and hammered a 3-wood that floated enough in the air to clear the bunker and reach the green. This time, he had to settle for a two-putt birdie, bouncing on his feet as the ball trickled to a stop inches from the front of the cup.

Then there was Mickelson, facing a 30-foot birdie chip after having to lay up on the par-5 eighth. The ball ran hot toward the hole, spun out of the cup and Lefty threw his head back in disbelief.

The good news for Mickelson? It's only Thursday.

And with a mild breeze in the afternoon and soft conditions, no one could afford to take their foot off the gas if they wanted to keep their positions.

"If you shoot even par, you're going to get run over here," Woods said.

Steve Elkington has been playing Doral every year since 1988, and after a 67, he kept his optimism in check.

"This course always gives up low scores early in the week," he said. "It's nothing to get too excited about."

But there was plenty of buzz with Woods and Mickelson.

Woods, coming off a third-round loss in the Match Play Championship, played one of his most thorough rounds of his short year by keeping the ball in play, hitting solid irons and making putts on the smooth greens of Doral. He missed only three fairways, four greens and took 26 putts.

And his 64 could have been better had he not wasted shots on the par 5s.

He was pin-high on the par-5 eighth in two, elected to chip and blew it by 6 feet, missing the birdie putt. From the 10th fairway, he hit 5-wood toward the green and immediately flung it to the ground when he saw it turn to the left, into the water hazard. He took a penalty drop and chipped close to save par.

But he atoned for that with tremendous drives that left short irons into the green, and one good break when he chipped in from 25 feet on the par-3 15th.

Asked if it was his best round of the year, Woods paused to think before remembering the Match Play Championship.

"I played similar to this -- at least for 10 holes -- at La Costa," he said, referring to his record 9-and-8 victory over Stephen Ames in the first round, when Woods birdied seven of his first nine holes.

Mickelson has been held back only by his putting, and that was among his best clubs in the bag Thursday. He took only 25 putts, although he sure would have liked to make the 20-footer on his last hole.

"I was trying to get the last one to pull even with him," Mickelson said. "But I just couldn't quite do it."

There's three more days to sort that out.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press