Woods back in comfort zone; leads by one

Updated: September 28, 2006, 4:32 PM ET
Associated Press

CHANDLER'S CROSS, England -- The first two weeks in the British Isles have been match play and sour memories for Tiger Woods, whether it was a first-round loss at Wentworth or a resounding loss to Europe in the Ryder Cup.

He returned to stroke play -- and to the top of the leaderboard -- Thursday.

Woods took advantage of a soft course with slick, smooth greens for his best start of the year, an 8-under 63 capped by an eagle on the last hole that gave him a one-shot lead over Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter in the American Express Championship.

"I made a couple of putts and got things rolling and got the momentum on my side and just kept rolling," Woods said.

He finished with his best shot of the day. On the 567-yard closing hole at The Grove, which is uphill and played into a breeze, he hammered a driver down the middle and followed with a 3-wood from 267 yards that landed 20 feet from the cup.

Stewart Cink had momentum on his side, too. He hammered Sergio Garcia in Sunday singles at the Ryder Cup and then watched more putts drop on his way to a 6-under 65 that left him tied with Ernie Els.

Woods matched his best score of the year. He also shot 63 in the final round of the Deustche Bank Championship outside Boston on Labor Day, his fifth consecutive victory. The winning streak ended two weeks ago at the HSBC World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, although it was a European Tour event that does not count in PGA Tour records.

Woods lost in the first round there. A week later at the Ryder Cup, he had his first winning record (3-2), but it wasn't nearly enough to keep the Europeans from another 18½-9½ victory over the Americans.

As well as he played Thursday on his own, Woods was defensive about his play at The K Club in Ireland. Had the Ryder Cup been a stroke-play event over five days, he said he did well enough that he would have finished 15th or better.

"I only had one bad day, which was Saturday morning," he said of a fourballs loss with Jim Furyk. "Other than that, I actually played pretty darn good. I'm only in control of five points, and I got three of five. I did the best I could. I could have holed more putts, certainly, but overall, I thought I played pretty solid."

There was no doubting that on a cool afternoon at The Grove, a new course just north of London that Woods played for the first time during a practice round Wednesday. Already, it feels like home.

This didn't come as a surprise to Cink.

"When you play the practice rounds, you know the course sets up well for him," Cink said. "The longer hitters are going to have a big advantage because the fairways are wide in some areas. And Tiger, it's his kind of place with softer greens. They might as well just change the course's name to 'Tiger Woods.' It's a prefect course for him."

Woods said he could see the shots, a phrase he has used to describe courses like Torrey Pines, Firestone and Augusta National, where he has won at least four times each.

So, he likes it. But does he love it?

"A couple of more 63s ...," Woods said with a smile.

This one looked routine at times. He made the turn in 29, thanks to a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 3 and an 18-foot chip-in for birdie on the par-3 seventh. Both times, Woods started walking to the hole before the ball even reached the cup, a sign the greens are so pure that players know when shots are going in.

He also got some help from TV.

Woods' tee shot on the ninth was going well to the right and appeared headed over a slope and into thick, knee-high grass. Instead, it banged off the back of a TV cart -- the black paint had a scuff mark that showed the dimple pattern of his golf ball -- and caromed some 40 yards back into the fairway. Instead of a wedge, he was left with a 7-iron from 190 yards and hit that to four feet for birdie.

"That was a huge break," Woods said.

Whether there was a Ryder Cup hangover depended on the player.

Harrington was under enormous pressure last week with the Ryder Cup on his home soil. Although he didn't win any of his five matches, he was relieved that Europe won. He was exhausted when he got to The Grove, although the Irishman found a quick cure with four birdies in the opening five holes.

"It catches your interest," he said. "I'm sure if I started with a few bogeys, I would have found it very hard to stay motivated."

Cink lost in a playoff to Woods at the last World Golf Championship, which was played at Firestone a week after the PGA Championship. So he wasn't surprised to get off to a good start at this one.

He put so much into getting ready for the final major of the year that it carried over into the next week. Cink believes the same was true at the Ryder Cup, especially the way it ended. He was 6-under through 15 holes when he closed out Garcia.

"I left with a lot of confidence after Sunday," he said.

Seven of the top 13 players on the leaderboard played in the Ryder Cup, including David Howell at 66 and Jim Furyk, Robert Karlsson and Chad Campbell at 67.

Others weren't so fortunate, such as Paul Casey (74), David Toms (73) and Colin Montgomerie (72).

And some didn't care.

Els watched some of the Ryder Cup when he was home last week, but he took a few days to drive 30 minutes from his home at Wentworth to play the Grove.

"It's an important week for me," said Els, without a victory since the South African Open in December. "I'd like to win, obviously, but I'd like to finish with a good week here and see what happens."


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press