ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - There were rumors floating around the Old Course during yesterday's second round of the 129th British Open that a streaker might be on the loose and headed in the direction of Tiger Woods.
"We heard a London tabloid put out a bounty," a security officer in charge of watching Woods' threesome said as he walked down the first fairway.
The rumor of a streaker turned out to be true. Actually, there were two. The first was fully-clothed, a blur in black-and-gray. It was Woods himself, starting the day one stroke behind Ernie Els and finishing it three strokes ahead of David Toms after a 6-under-par 66.
By the time the real streaker showed up, the topless woman had about as much chance of getting to Woods as the rest of the field. She couldn't, taken away by several of St. Andrews' finest. The competitors probably won't, either, given the way Woods plays as a front-runner.
With a two-round total of 11-under 133 - one shy of the record for an Open at St. Andrews - Woods is three ahead of Toms and four up on Sergio Garcia of Spain and two Americans, left-hander Steve Flesch and veteran Loren Roberts.
Els, considered by many to be the player most capable of stopping Woods from winning his second straight major championship and becoming the youngest player to complete a career Grand Slam, lost ground with an even-par 72 and is five shots behind.
The two-time Open champion is in a group of five players that includes former British Open champion Tom Lehman, former Masters champion Fred Couples, American Phil Mickelson and Thomas Bjorn of Denmark. Four more are at 5-under 139, including last year's tragic hero, Jean Van de Velde of France.
Others might, but Woods doesn't think the tournament is over. Or at least he isn't saying so.
"I don't have the trophy sitting next to me," he said, referring to the treasured Claret Jug.
The way Woods has played the first two days, it seems as if it is just a matter of time. After making pars on the first eight holes Thursday, Woods has played the past 28 in 11-under.
He has hit into one of the 112 bunkers only once this week, and safely got out. As during his 15-stroke victory in last month's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he has yet to three-putt.
One more thing: Woods will take a streak of 62 straight holes without a bogey in a major into today's third round.
"I think what you try to do in a tournament is try not to make a mistake, don't make bogeys," said Woods, 24. "Bogeys are not good for a scorecard. I know that, and everyone else knows that. If you go around and not make bogeys for an entire week, I guarantee you're going to have a chance to win."
Playing again in near-perfect conditions - a light, downwind breeze on the front nine - Woods started with a 10-foot downhill putt for birdie on the par-4 opening hole. He made another birdie on the par-4 fourth, where he nearly holed out from the fairway. Woods tied Toms at 8-under with a birdie on the par-5 fifth, where his uphill putt from 30 feet off the green and 45 feet from the pin grazed the pin as it rolled a foot past.
The third birdie came after Woods' group was forced to wait more than 30 minutes on the tee as play backed up.
"I wish somebody had a football to throw around," Woods said, joking with U.S. Amateur champion David Gossett, one of his playing partners.
Nothing in the 5 1/2 -hour round seemed to faze Woods.
Woods took the lead with a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-4 ninth, then started building on it. He drove over the green on the 314-yard, par-4 12th for the second straight day, chipped to within 10 feet and made the putt for birdie. He made another 10-footer for birdie on the par-5 14th.
The only trouble he had came when his approach on the par-4 17th Road Hole trickled off the green, rolled across the hardpan and came to rest in the grass next to the road. Showing his creativity, Woods chipped past the hole, let the ball climb up the slope and then come back toward the cup. He made an 8-footer for par.
"That chip shot wasn't exactly easy, the ground as hard as it is," he said later. "I have been practicing that. I figured I might end up there, and there I am."
By making the putt, Woods also made a similar statement to the kind he issued at Pebble Beach. He does not plan on giving anyone the slightest of openings, and figures that playing with the lead is much easier than playing from behind.
"I always enjoy being in the lead," said Woods. "If you make a mistake, it's not as costly as if you're behind. If you have a three-shot lead and make a couple of bogeys here or there, you still may have a one-shot lead. If you're two or three back [and make a couple of bogeys], you're out of the tournament."
Asked what it might be like for those trying to catch him, Woods said, "It's really hard for me to answer that because I'm not in their shoes. It is hard for me to understand what they're thinking and what they're feeling and what their thought process is. I know what mine is, and that's all I need to know."
Certainly the most intriguing name of those in closest pursuit of Woods is Garcia, the 20-year-old phenom who lost a back-nine shootout to the world's top-ranked player in last year's PGA Championship at Medinah.
Garcia, who briefly tied Toms for the lead at 8-under before making a bogey on the 17th hole in a round of 3-under 69, said he would relish the chance for another head-to-head battle.
"I would love to, it would be great," said Garcia, who has redeemed himself here after missing the cut in last year's British Open at Carnoustie with rounds of 89 and 83. "A lot of things have to happen to put us together in a game. But if I were to play with him on the weekend, it would be something special."
Els, who three-putted twice on the front nine for bogeys on the third and ninth holes, didn't sound confident.
"I just felt like today was going to be a perfect day, but to get off to that kind of start and lose your momentum was disappointing," he said. "When you don't get the bounces and you don't get it close to the hole, the golf course can get you, and it did that to me today."
It has yet to get to Woods. He is playing with more patience than he exhibited at Troon in 1997 or Royal Birkdale in '98 or Carnoustie last year.
Not only didn't he make any mistakes on the course, but he didn't make any mistakes off it. He didn't attempt to make any jokes about the streaker.
"I don't think that it should happen," he said. "And I definitely don't. It is not right, especially to do it here at the home of golf. This is where you should show the utmost respect for the game of golf."
Standing a few feet away during the news conference, a security agent wasn't so diplomatic.
"She was oogly," he said.
Second-round leader ...
Tiger Woods 67-66-133 ... and selected followers
David Toms 69-67-136 Sergio Garcia 68-69-137 Steve Flesch 67-70-137 Loren Roberts 69-68-137 Fred Couples 70-68-138 Ernie Els 66-72-138 Phil Mickelson 72-66-138 Thomas Bjorn 69-69-138 Tom Lehman 68-70-138 Jean Van de Velde 71-68-139 Davis Love 74-66-140 Vijay Singh 70-70-140 David Duval 70-70-140 Notah Begay 69-73-142 Justin Leonard 70-74-144 Complete scores. [Page 8c]