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Tiger Woods in the lead at Australian Open, hopes to stay there and end 2-year title drought
SYDNEY (AP) ' The latest comparison between Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus was not about winning majors.
It was about remembering how to win.
Woods took a big step toward putting himself in position Friday in the Australian Open with a second straight day of crisp, controlled shots for a 5-under 67 that gave him a one-shot lead over Peter O'Malley going into the weekend at The Lakes.
No one from his generation has more experience being in contention than Woods, a winner 82 times around the world. But those occasions have been rare over the last few years.
This is the first time Woods has been atop the leaderboard since the third round of the Chevron World Challenge last December, where he blew a four-shot lead to Graeme McDowell on the last day. It's the first time he's had the lead against a full field since his last win two years ago in the Australian Masters.
Woods knows as well as anyone that 36 holes is too early to crown a champion. The question is whether he will react in the manner that once came so naturally when a tournament is at stake. While in the process of rebuilding his swing and learning to trust it, getting into contention has not been as easy as it once seemed.
"I think experience comes with managing myself and my game," Woods said. "I've been there a few times and I understand how to do it. All the things that can happen, I've experienced a lot of it."
True, but he hasn't experienced it since that Sunday at the Masters, when he was tied for the lead going to the back nine, shot even par as everyone behind him made birdies and tied for fourth. And before that was the Chevron World Challenge, when he had only one shot and couldn't hold off McDowell.
"It comes back," Woods said of knowing how to win. "When Jack won in '86 at the Masters, it came back. You know what it feels like. You know what to do."
Nicklaus had not won in two years and was thought to be past his time when he shot 30 on the back nine at Augusta National to claim his sixth green jacket and 18th professional major, the benchmark that Woods ' still at 14 majors ' now chases.
The third round Saturday was shaping up to be important for Woods, who was at 9-under 135.
O'Malley is a member at The Lakes and a familiar name for Woods. The Australian was the No. 64 seed at the Match Play Championship when he knocked out Woods in the first round at La Costa in 2002.
He now closes his eyes over the shorter putts to help his concentration, although it might help block out what was sure to be another massive crowd crammed in along the sand dunes and under the tea trees.
Jason Day, who turns 24 on Saturday, spent the opening two rounds playing with Woods and recovered from a few loose tee shots for a 68 that left him only two shots behind. Nick Watney faded on the front nine and was three shots behind Woods.
There is reason to believe ' this time ' that Woods is making greater strides toward returning to his game. The first two days have been blustery, the kind of wind that can turn mediocre shots into bad ones. Woods didn't have many of those.
"It feels good," he said of seeing his name atop the leaderboard. "It feels good that I am there playing properly. It's not like I'm slashing it all over the place. I'm hitting the ball well."
And he is hitting shots that few others can, the kind of shots that made Day realize that Woods is capable of doing things he can't. The best example came from the middle of the fairway on the par-5 eighth hole toward the end of their second round. Both had about 280 yards to the hole into a 15 mph wind.
Day hit 3-wood into the front bunker. Woods hit 3-wood that looked like a bullet, fading gently onto the green to about 30 feet. It was as pure a shot as he has hit all year, one that brought a smile to his face when asked about it.
"I hit that good," he said. "A slightly hanging lie. I had to start it into the bunker and just hammer it, and I did. It slid about three yards. It was the best shot I've hit so far."
He hit enough others to set up easy birdies, and picked up another between his two bogeys with a 25-foot putt on the fourth hole that broke about 6 inches at the end and led Woods to look down and lightly pump his fists.
Day was one of many youngsters who grew up in golf trying to be like Tiger. He finally played with him at a time when Woods is trying to make it back, having slipped to No. 58 in the world.
"He hits shots that the top 1 percent of the PGA Tour players can't hit, especially that 3-wood," Day said. "It was a long, long 3-wood, a low bullet. There are not many players in the world that can hit those kind of shots."
Also playing with them was Robert Allenby, who seems to get paired with Woods frequently and saw a familiar game even as the Australian was missing the cut.
"Probably in the last six months, that's the best I've seen him play," Allenby said. "I've seen him at his absolute best ... that was a different human being. He's on his way back, that's for sure. I think where he is right now is good enough to win. I think you'll find if he keeps going the way he is going, he'll win over the weekend."
Woods wasn't willing to look that far ahead, though this is as close as he's been in some time. He joked about it with an Australian reporter who asked if Friday was his best round since the Masters.
"Yeah, considering I've only played about six rounds," Woods said.
This actually was his 11th full round since the Masters, though his point was taken. It has been a year of healing leg injuries for Woods, and he keeps saying he is healthy for the first time in years, that he now has time to practice as long as he wants, and the swing changes under Sean Foley are starting to come together.
"I've been hitting it like this at home, but it hasn't come out in a tournament setting yet," Woods said. "That's the best progression. I have been through swing changes before. That's what's happened. It takes a little time but once it starts coming the confidence starts building."