Tiger Woods was feeling it in the second round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Near-record U.S. Open back nine puts Tiger Woods one back at Torrey Pines, adds shockwaves

LA JOLLA, Calif. - Passing the high-powered agent of Tiger Woods, a golf official could only shake his head and point at the TV screen.

"Freak, huh?" Mark Steinberg shot back with a grin. "Freak."

HE - and there's only one HE to the rest of the field in a major - certainty was. And now everyone else in contention at the U.S. Open is shaking their head a little. For that wasn't the other shoe that dropped on Torrey Pines early Friday evening, it was more like a live volcano.

With Tiger Woods shooting a 30 on his back nine at the golf course he's long owned, one shot off the all-time record for the lowest nine ever at a U.S. Open - everyone else is on notice. Going 5 under on his second nine (Tiger's group finished on the front nine) propelled Woods and his endlessly analyzed left knee to two under for the tournament, just one shot off of the lead.

Stuart Appleby, the affable 37-year-old pro who actually holds that lead at 3 under, knows most people consider him on top in name only. Heck, Appleby admits he might be one of those people.

"I don't think you can avoid it," Appleby said of Woods' position.

Phil Mickelson certainly couldn't. As his own no-driver-in-the-bag strategy blew up in his face, the second ranked player in the world watched No. 1 hit 15-to-20-foot putt after 15-to-20-foot putt after the turn. Tiger let loose with a few of those trademark fist pumps, but the real painful jabs for Mickelson came in all the fairways Mickelson missed.

Using his 3-wood off most tees, a strategy he devised because he thought it would make him more accurate, Mickelson instead stayed within the boundaries about as well as a drunk driver on the road.

"It's just a hard golf course to play from the rough," Mickelson said, the gloom that hung over Torrey Pines all day matching his facial expression. "I'm at less than 50 percent of fairways (hit), and I've got to be at 70-80 percent."

Expect to see a driver in Mickelson's bag for round three this afternoon. It might be too late, however, after a 4-over 75 left him 4 over for the tournament, mired in 35th place.

Especially if, as many players fear, Woods has now found his stride after having, until Thursday, not played competitive golf for two months because of that surgically repaired knee. In another twist, Woods righted himself just at the moment all the TV talking heads and press center quarterbacks were convinced he'd hurt himself.

When Woods' drive on No. 1 (the 10th hole he played) only found cart path, he found himself hitting from cement, on metal spikes with all that potential for slippage. He grimaced on the eight-iron whack - and hit it right in the middle of the green to set up the first of his five second-nine birdies.

Rather than triggering disaster or more pained looks, the cement shot only started the run.

"I got on a roll," Woods said with a shrug.

And it could be felt all around the course. The 42,000 plus at Torrey Pines on Friday produced louder roars than most of the players could ever remember in the U.S. Open. At one point, they could even be heard in the press center, which is about as far removed from the course as any structure on the grounds.

Rocco Mediate just took them in, smiling wider than many of the fans in beer heaven. The veteran's been on the PGA Tour for 23 years now, and here he is, tied for second with Tiger and relatively unknown Swede Robert Karlsson heading into the weekend at a U.S. Open.

"Didn't think I'd be back here, did you?" Mediate cracked in the on-course interview area.

Mediate hit a ton of fairways in going 69-71 and joked with even more fans. One of the most relaxed pros you've ever seen in competition just hopes he can keep it up.

"Most of us aren't machines," Mediate said. "Especially myself."

The machine tees off at 2:50 p.m. PST this afternoon, giving the East Coast TV suits what they prayed for in Saturday night's prime time telecast.

Appleby grabs Open lead, crushes cut hopes with birdie

For all the clutch putts Woods buried, the putt of the day belonged to Appleby. In more ways than one. Appleby's snaked in a 40-foot birdie on 18 - only the third par 5 closing hole in U.S. Open history.

"That was a sweet taste," Appleby said.

Not for everyone. It didn't just give him a one up on Tiger, either.

That 40-footer also moved the within-10-shots cut from plus 8 to plus 7, breaking the hearts of golfers like Zach Johnson and J.B. Holmes. Defending champion Angel Cabrera had been sent packing much earlier, his plus 13, 76-79 the stuff of golf horror stories.

For a while on an overcast day that kept the greens from firming up, it looked like another U.S. Open would be hovering right around par as few could take advantage of favorable conditions.

"It's that word, U.S. Open, right there," Mediate said of the pressure that will ensure this is never mistaken for a Buick Open.

"The key going to the weekend is going to be putting. For a while you could have thought par is going to win this thing. But now, after what just happened, who knows?"

Woods, the man who "just happened," tried to downplay any tremors.

"You're just at the halfway point," he said. "You're just trying to position yourself."

Of course, a little shock-and-awe in the rest of the field never hurts, either.

June 14, 2008

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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