For hot Woods, it's no sweat to get 12 birdies


AUGUSTA, Ga. - It was the longest of days at Augusta National. Play began at 8:30 a.m., and ended some 11 hours later as the sunlight finally gave out.

Tiger Woods wished it could have gone on and on.

He played 26 holes as the rain-delayed Masters went into catch-up mode on Day 3, and he completed those 26 holes in 11-under-par, rising from nowhere to second on the leader board, behind only Chris DiMarco.

Woods still trails by four strokes, but if his Sunday is anything like his Saturday, he's going to win his fourth Masters.

As well as DiMarco is playing - he was 8-under for 26 holes yesterday - no golfer on the planet can match Woods at his best. And Woods, unmistakably, was at his best yesterday, finishing with three straight birdies for an even dozen on the day.

"Ever had 12 birdies in a day?" a reporter asked last night.

"Yes," Woods said.

Only darkness kept him from adding more. Augusta National was ripe for the plucking as the sun went down. The bad-weather winds were gone, the greens were soft from all the rain, and the pin placements were benign, Woods said.

But Phil Mickelson couldn't take advantage, a popped blister and his suspect conditioning becoming factors as the long day wore on. Mickelson, the defending champion, ended yesterday 10 strokes behind DiMarco.

Vijay Singh, the world's top-ranked player, also stalled to some degree, ending the day nine shots behind.

Only Woods and Denmark's Thomas Bjorn kept pace with the leader, and Bjorn, who relinquished second to Woods with a missed tap-in late in the day, had to stand back and applaud Woods.

"Tiger is Tiger. When he plays like that, you've just got to enjoy watching him," Bjorn said. "I have to say, it's great for the game that he's playing that kind of game again."

People seemed to tire of it when he ruled the sport with ruthless authority from 1999 to 2002, winning four straight major titles and seven of 11 at one point. He was too good, if that's possible.

But he, too, eventually grew bored with winning, and his game suffered. Then he fell in love and got married, dropping golf from first on his list of priorities. Finally, he hired a new coach and adopted a new swing, a momentous change for any golfer.

He hasn't won a major since June 2002, but it has been apparent for months that he's on his way back, refocused and rebuilding to a new climax. It seems the public is ready to see him win again, if the roars that greeted his birdies yesterday are any indication.

Certainly, few shows in any sport can match Woods on an absolute tear.

"That was quite an impressive front nine [31], wasn't it?" Bjorn said of Woods' final nine holes yesterday.

When he won the Masters for the first time eight years ago, he shot 4-over 40 on the first nine and then obliterated the field, winning by 12 strokes. DiMarco figures to keep that from happening again, but distinct echoes of that performance were increasingly audible yesterday.

Woods stumbled through his first round again this year, finishing with a 2-over 74 after putting into the water on No. 13 and generally bungling any chance to get something started. But he was playing better than his early score indicated, just like in 1997.

"I kept telling myself that I was hitting good shots all along, that I just needed to keep grinding away and hopefully it would turn," he said last night. "And sure enough, it turned. All of a sudden, I started making some putts and the momentum started to build."

And build. And build.

"When you putted the ball into the water on No. 13 [Thursday], did you ever think you'd get back to this position?" a reporter asked.

"Yes," Woods said.

Another one of those forbidding one-word answers.

DiMarco, a popular and savvy veteran, insisted he wasn't fazed by the sight of Woods creeping up on him.

"I'm fine," he said. "He shot 31 on [his last nine yesterday]. But you expect that. If I shoot 36, I'm only one shot up [now]. But I shot 33, so I played a good nine myself."

Now both are looking at a final day even longer than yesterday, needing to play 27 holes to complete four rounds. The forecast is for sunny skies and warm temperatures.

"I'm going to go out and have fun," DiMarco said. "If I go around and make a few birdies on the back, we'll be fine."

No matter what he does, all eyes will be on the golfer right behind him.

"We have a long way to go," Wood said. "I've got 27 holes to go, and I've got to grind it out."

His definition of "grinding" produced a dozen birdies yesterday.

Look out.

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