LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England (AP) — It's beginning to look familiar again, like it did when the mere mention of Tiger Woods made the putting stroke of anyone on the leaderboard of a major get just a little quicker. It sure sounded familiar when he holed out from the bunker on the final hole Friday, and cheers echoed off the giant grandstands surrounding the 18th green.
We used to expect it every time a big tournament came around. His fellow players still do, which speaks to the aura Woods still has.
"I guess we knew that one was in before it even got there," Graeme McDowell said.
It did little officially but to secure Woods a late tee time Saturday and move him one shot closer to what no longer seems like such a substantial lead held by Brandt Snedeker. The fist pump seemed to indicate otherwise, as if Woods was announcing that anyone wanting this British Open would have to deal with him on the weekend.
Just like old times, indeed. But before anyone gets too excited about Woods and his chances of finally winning his 15th major championship, remember this:
He's not the Tiger Woods of old just yet.
For evidence of that look no further than what happened just a few weeks ago on the coast of California, when Woods played so flawlessly the first two days it was all the television talking heads could do to keep from awarding him the U.S. Open trophy right then. He went out on the weekend tied for the lead, only to self-destruct with a string of wayward shots and missed putts.
The reality is he still hasn't won a major since taking the U.S. Open four years ago at Torrey Pines. And while he's won three British Opens, the last one came before he turned 30 and long before his life turned upside down.
His presence in the second-to-last group Saturday will send TV ratings soaring, that's for certain. What isn't nearly as certain — perhaps even to Woods himself — is whether he can manage the pressure of a weekend the way he once did against players who, for the most part, no longer fear him like they once did.
"Overall I'm very pleased at where I'm at," Woods said. "We're at the halfway point and I'm right there in the mix. With the weather that's forecast on Sunday and tomorrow, it's going to be a good weekend."
Unfortunately for Woods, the weather forecast around here is as fickle as his game has been in recent times. A links course that has played soft and relatively easy could bare its teeth if things warm up and the wind blows on Sunday, as predicted. What he's been successful at for two days— mostly playing conservatively off the tee — might not be the right game plan if other players are getting aggressive and making birdies around him.
Still, the fact he's put himself in contention on the weekend for the second straight major with two solid rounds of 67 has to be comforting. He's certainly better off than his playing partner, Sergio Garcia, who went home after missing a short birdie putt on the last hole to miss the cut, and Phil Mickelson, who ballooned to a 78 on Friday and was jetting home himself.
The way he got to within four shots of the lead is the way Woods tries to play all his majors. Hitting irons while others may pull out drivers, Woods is leading the field in fairways hit, even as he finds himself with longer shots into the green than most players. He's fourth in greens hit, and has made only two bogeys in two days.
And then there is this favorable stat: This was the eighth time Woods has opened with rounds in the 60s at a major in his career — and he's won all seven previous ones.
At the age of 36, though, he needs to start closing the show instead of just putting on a show. His playing partner in the third round will be a young Dane who grew up idolizing Woods and, while Thorbjorn Olesen won't win this Open, his presence on the leaderboard is another sign that youth will eventually be served in golf, just as it is in other sports.
So far, Woods has been at his methodical best, following his game plan in the first two rounds even when Garcia was blowing drivers by him. He's kept the ball in play, shaped his shots with precision, and made his birdies when they presented themselves.
None of that will matter if he shoots another 75 in the third round as he did at Olympic Club last month. He's the one who has made the majors his measuring stick, and the record will show that he squandered yet another opportunity in a sport that offers only four of them a year.
His past history tells us never to count him out on a weekend.
His most recent history tells us not to start engraving his name on the claret jug just yet.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org