AUGUSTA, Ga. — Here he comes.
Brace yourself, Augusta.
Brace yourself, golf world.
Tiger Woods, 14 years removed from his last Masters victory, is in prime position entering the weekend to seize his fifth green jacket.
Woods, who last won the Masters in 2005, stormed up the Augusta National manually operated leaderboards with a 4-under 68 in Friday’s second round and stood at 6-under for the tournament. That was one shot out of the lead shared by Jason Day, Francesco Molinari, Brooks Koepka, Adam Scott and Louis Oosthuizen.
Woods in contention at the Masters again. Just the way it always used to be when he was winning in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005.
After his fourth back surgery, Woods returned last year following a two-year absence from the tournament and finished in a quiet, non-factor tie for 32nd, his worst Masters result as a professional.
A year ago, Woods called himself a “walking miracle,’’ referring to his ability to merely compete again for a green jacket.
Since that week, Woods contended at the 2018 British Open and PGA Championship and won the Tour Championship, ending a winless drought of more than five years. Of course, he hasn’t won a major championship since the 2008 U.S. Open.
“The last three major championships I’ve been right there with a chance,’’ Woods said. “I had the lead on the back nine at the British and I had a shot against Brooks at the PGA, and here I am now at the Masters.
“I feel like I played my own way back into the tournament. I was just very patient and felt very good to be out there doing what I was doing. This is now three straight majors that I’ve been in the mix, and so it’s good stuff.’’
You could tell Woods was smelling it Friday. The emphatic, if violent, fist pumps were back when he made long birdie putts on No. 14, where he scrambled from a poor drive in the left trees to get to 5-under, and No. 15, where he got to 6-under and a shot off the lead.
When Woods’ round was over, he walked off 18 and through a tunnel of roped-off humanity en route to the clubhouse wearing a perpetual toothy grin while spectators screamed his name and leaned in, reaching for high fives.
“It was fun,’’ Woods said. “It felt good.’’
What didn’t feel good was a mishap on the 14th hole that threatened to derail Woods’ run.
After he hit his approach shot through an opening in the trees and started walking toward the fairway, an overexuberant security official, trying to keep the spectators away from Woods, slipped on the wet grass and crashed into Woods’ right ankle.
Woods hopped and skipped away gingerly, like a shortstop who’d just gotten spiked on a double-play pivot.
Moments later, it was clear Woods was OK, as he was smiling with his caddie, Joe LaCava, in the fairway.
After the round, Woods downplayed the incident.
“It’s all good,’’ he said. “Accidents happen. I’ve had galleries run over me. When you play in front a lot of people, things happen. Accidents happen and you move on.’’
Woods’ score could have been better had it not been for some more missed short-ish putts — particularly on No. 8, where he three-putted. He also left a great birdie chance on No. 12 short right following a weather delay, after he’d stuffed his tee shot right over the flag.
“I missed a few putts out there, but I’m not too bummed out about it because I hit my lines,’’ Woods said. “I also made some distance putts on 9, 14 and 15. Those were nice to make. If I keep hitting putts on my lines they’ll start dropping.’’
If they do, the roars echoing through the tall pines around Augusta will be deafening over the weekend.
Woods, of course, doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. But everyone else will do it for him, with the anticipation of him winning another major — another Masters — hanging heavily in the air.
Woods, who was good on Friday, knows it was far from perfect. He was far from great. He hit 7 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens and took 30 putts. He also played the par-5s in even par, a statistic that will have to get better the next two days if he’s going to win.
“He’s swinging good,” LaCava said. “He’s driving it pretty well, his iron game is pretty good and he’s working on his short game really hard. That’s coming around. So he’s certainly going in the right direction.’’
And to be just a shot back, with those flaws to be improved, has to further fuel his energy entering the weekend. Imagine the fist pump if he’s able to drop a winning putt on No. 18 Sunday. He might send himself to another surgery by throwing his arm from his shoulder socket.
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