SAN DIEGO - Remember, the surgery was to repair damage to his left knee. The uncanny competitive fire and the unfailing putting stroke were never in disrepair.
Tiger Woods demonstrated that in dramatic fashion during yesterday's second round of the 108th US Open as an electrifying birdie binge on the front side at Torrey Pines pushed him into the thick of the competition. Having fallen six strokes off the lead thanks to a sloppy, four-bogey effort on the back, Woods ran off a string of five straight 3s - four birdies and a par - early on the front, then closed out his day with a birdie at the par-5 ninth to come home in 30, sign for a 3-under-par 68, and head home for dinner at 2-under 140, tied for second with Rocco Mediate (71) and Robert Karlsson (70).
In search of his third US Open victory and 14th major championship, Woods is a stroke behind Stuart Appleby, whose 35-foot birdie roll at the par-5 18th enabled him to shoot 70 -139. Stunning, perhaps, for Appleby has missed the cut seven times in 11 previous starts, but this was a day for established names to assume command. That was in stark contrast to Thursday, when unknowns named Kevin Streelman and Justin Hicks had shared the lead at 68.
But as Streelman shot 77 -145 and Hicks 80 -148 to plunge down the leaderboard, it cleared the way for better-known names to rise, because Davis Love and D.J. Trahan each shot 69 to move into a tie with Lee Westwood (71) at 1-under 141, and Ernie Els (72), Luke Donald (71), Geoff Ogilvy (73), Robert Allenby (72), and Carl Pettersson (71) all sit at even par.
Notable names, every one, but none generated the electricity Woods did - and he needed not a bit of help from his marquee playing competitors, either. That's right, it's safe to say that midway through the second round, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott must have felt like sparring partners for the heavyweight champ of the world - albeit a hobbled one on the medical rebound. That's because on a day when US Golf Association officials offered up as gentle a setup as possible and Woods took advantage, Mickelson (75) and Scott (73) had their problems and slumbered to 4-over 146, seven strokes off the pace.
If they felt beaten, they received a bit of comfort from Woods.
"Phil and Adam were playing pretty good, but it doesn't take much," said Woods. "This course can bite you."
As proof, Woods bogeyed two of his first three holes, starting at the par-4 10th. Though he brought out his incredible power and precision to reach the 599-yard, par-5 13th in two shots, and with a curling, 10-foot left-to-right roll he had just the second eagle of the championship at that hole.
"That was nice," said Woods, "but I gave it right back [with bogeys at the par-3 16th and par-4 17th]."
When he didn't birdie the 18th, which "was playing as easy as it can," he said, Woods was 3 over and six strokes removed from Mediate's lead. But while Mediate would drop a shot and allow Appleby to sneak into the lead, Woods had a talk with himself on the way to the first tee. It was a short walk and thus was the message brief.
"Stay patient," said Woods. "I was just hanging in there."
Playing competitively for the first time since the final round of the Masters April 13, Woods drove it wildly at the first, but somehow muscled a shot onto the green. When he made that birdie putt, it was as if a switch had been turned on. He followed with a birdie at the par-4 second, settled for par at the par-3 third, then birdied the par-4 fourth and par-4 fifth. "No changes," said Woods, when asked if he discovered any swing flaws. "I didn't do anything. I just said to myself, 'Get back to even par for the tournament.' I was playing well enough to do it."
Actually, he was better, because with the birdie at the fifth, Woods was 1 under and just one off the lead. Not that he could see his competition, however, because Mediate was on the back nine, with Karlsson right behind him, and Appleby another group back.
As Woods did on his side, that trio played solidly coming home on theirs, with Mediate's bogey at the par-4 17th offset by his birdie at the 18th. And when Appleby stunned even himself by dropping that birdie putt at the 18th, just moments before Woods got it up-and-down from the back of the green for a birdie at the par-5 ninth, the picture came into focus.
"It's going to get harder and tighten down and not get easier," said Mediate, who professes nothing but love for these US Opens, demanding and punishing that they are. "There are a lot of people chasing everybody."
A glance at the leaderboard proves that Mediate speaks the truth, because as play stretched into the early evening on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, there were 19 players within five shots of Appleby's lead. But if folks digested just the one name and focused in on the man whose scintillating front-side 30 gave a different shape to this championship, well, Mediate wouldn't blame them.
He also wouldn't mind going head-to-head with Woods.
"That's the dream," said Mediate. "That's what you want. I mean, you don't get a lot of chances to play with the best player. It's awesome."
Whether Mickelson and Scott agree is open for debate.
Jim McCabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.