SAN DIEGO -- Brandt Snedeker didn't know how golf could get any better than an opening-round 61 until he walked up the 18th fairway to a standing ovation Friday after expanding his lead and the size of his gallery at the Buick Invitational.
"I thought, 'This is what it feels like to be Tiger Woods,'" he said.
The only thing sweeter would be to beat him.
Snedeker overcame some sloppy tee shots with brilliant iron play for a 2-under 70 on the menacing South Course at Torrey Pines, giving the 26-year-old rookie a three-shot lead over Charles Howell III going into the weekend.
Woods also received a raucous cheer on the final hole, but only after he topped a 5-wood out of the bunker that nearly went into the water, blasted a pitch over the green into another bunker and escaped with par for a 72 that left him seven shots behind.
"All in all, it was a pretty ugly 5," said Woods, the two-time defending champion going for his seventh straight PGA Tour victory.
Snedeker again struggled off the tee, hitting only three fairways. It got so bad that when he finally hit his first fairway on the back nine (No. 15), he had a man in the gallery say, "I finally won a dollar."
"I guess he was betting on me hitting the fairway," Snedeker said. "It wasn't a smart bet."
He could get away with errant tee shots on the shorter, easier North Course and somehow survived without too much damage on the South, which will host the U.S. Open next year. Snedeker was helped by a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 3, a 4-iron into five feet on No. 12 and making only two bogeys.
He was at 13-under 131.
Howell got into weekend contention for the second time in three weeks with a 64 on the pitch-and-putt North Course, putting him at 10-under 134. Former PGA champion Rich Beem had a 68 on the South Course and was at 9-under 135 along with Bill Haas (66 on the North) and Charlie Wi (72 on the South).
Any tournament never really starts until the weekend, and that's especially true at Torrey Pines because of the disparity in courses. The average score was 4.7 higher on the South over the first two days, and the 74 players who made the cut will spend the next two days on the tougher South.
That will be another new experience for Snedeker.
He won twice on the Nationwide Tour last year, and he won the 2003 U.S. Amateur Public Links, which earned him a trip to the Masters. And there certainly were enormous crowds at Augusta National, although they were more interested in his partners those first two rounds (Fred Couples and David Toms).
But while Snedeker is wide-eyed and talking faster than usual in his Tennessee drawl, he knows he's playing some good golf.
"If I can get my driver under control, I like my chances," he said. "I certainly could not ask to be in a better position. I'm going to enjoy it. How many times do you get to play in the last group on the weekend of a PGA Tour event? This is my first time, and hopefully not my last, but I'll try to enjoy it like it is."
A three-shot margin helps, and only three of the 11 guys behind him have won on the PGA Tour. Still lurking is Woods, who was seven shots and three shots behind going into the weekend the last two years at Torrey Pines and went on to win both times.
"There's a bunch of guys right there with a chance," Woods said. "The South is going to be a stern test for all of us."
Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, the only other players in the top 10 in the world at the Buick Invitational, both rallied on the North course to secure a weekend spot. Mickelson shot 66 and was at 4-under 140, while Singh had a 66 to make the cut on the number at 141.
It would be hard to imagine anyone having more fun than Snedeker.
He still didn't have the largest galleries playing two groups behind Woods, but enough of them lingered to give him his largest audience since The Masters. He got to know them well, not only by hitting so many tee shots into the rough but also treating them like his best friends. In some respects, they were.
"That's how I was brought up," he said. "If somebody smiled at me, I smiled back. My dad would kick my butt, to be honest with you, if I hadn't done that. They were just so nice to me all day. It was nothing I've ever experienced before. They were rooting me on, and it really got me around the last five or six holes."
Then came the 18th, when Snedeker hit his third shot on the par-5 about 10 feet behind the hole and the crowd rose in the bleachers as he walked toward the green. He removed his visor from his long blond hair and raised it in tribute, a scene that looked like Sunday.
But he's not there quite yet.
So much focus is on Woods, as always, but Howell might be just as dangerous only three shots behind. He poured enormous time into his putting during the offseason and was runner-up by one shot two weeks ago at the Sony Open. He was also runner-up at Torrey Pines two years ago with a shot that made TV highlights for all the wrong reasons.
Howell's wedge to the 18th flew into the cup and then bounced back out with such force it sailed into the water. Had the shot gone in, he would have been in a playoff with Woods.
"Someone told me once a long time ago that golf owes you nothing," Howell said. "And I think that statement holds true."
Right now, Snedeker is taking everything away from a dream week that he hopes can hold up two more days.
Camilo Villegas got it backward at the Buick Invitational. He opened with a 67 for the best score on the South and then shot 75 on the North and missed the cut. ... Mark Hensby was on the cut line when he went for the 18th green in two. His 3-wood caromed off the bleachers and bounced into the lawn in front of the Torrey Pines Lodge, which is out of bounds. He made double bogey.