- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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SYDNEY -- Before getting ahead of ourselves, it is important to keep in mind that Tiger Woods has teased the golf world with glimpses of the past, made many believe he was on the way back to greatness when he ultimately was not.
He has contended at three majors championships in the two years since his personal and professional life crumbled in scandal, and missed two due to injury. We thought he had turned a significant corner late last year when he led the Chevron World Challenge through three rounds and lost in a playoff.
There have been enough false alarms in the past 18 months to make the doubters truly want to see smoke, and who could blame them?
Until Friday at the Australian Open, Woods had not led a tournament since the Masters; he had not led after a round since the Chevron last December. And it had been since the 2009 Australian Masters -- his last victory, almost two years to the day -- that he led after any round of a full-field event.
So nobody is scurrying to the balcony just yet looking for fire trucks.
But something about this does seem different. Woods' 67 at The Lakes Golf Club was not flawless, but neither was it a smoke-and-mirrors type of round in which he squeezed every bit out of it. In truth, Woods hit the ball well enough to score better. The 5-under effort appeared easy. He made his first two bogeys of the tournament, but he's now made 11 birdies in 36 holes.
And golf fans crowded around every tee box, down every fairway, near every green to witness the 14-time major champion take another step in his long journey.
"He's hitting it really good and he's hitting that driver straight, too,'' said Australian Jason Day, who played with Woods during the first two rounds and is two strokes back of the 36-hole lead. "The thing is, when he missed it, it's not big misses, it's pretty small misses. It looks like he's controlling the ball pretty well. He looks comfortable with his swing.''
That might be just as important as any score Woods shoots, because the uneasiness he often exhibited was real. Woods could string a bunch of good shots, good holes together. But he could not sustain it. There were times he looked uncomfortable, the rehearsals of his swing off to the side a clue. A golf swing needs to become natural, not mechanical.
Remember at the PGA Championship when Woods was 3 under through five holes? At that point, he tried to play naturally, going without mechanical thought, and the move proved to be a disaster. He wasn't ready yet. A year after going to work with Sean Foley, Woods had hit a low point, shooting 10 over par for two rounds.
That was three months ago, and all the talk about putting in reps and playing every day at home in South Florida and getting back to training and practicing appears to be on target.
Day, 24, who finished runner-up at both the Masters and U.S. Open this year, might not be the perfect source on all things Tiger -- this was the first time they have played together -- but he at least brings to the discussion considerable knowledge and admiration.
"Growing up he was my idol, I had posters of his swing on my wall,'' Day said. "He changed my life, practically. It's just good to see him back playing good golf. The fans are out there yelling his name. It's good to hear that. Golf needs Tiger.''
With each day, Woods seems to put the scandal of two years ago behind him. A second endorsement deal was announced Friday, this one with Fuse Science Inc., which will take the place on his golf bag vacated by AT&T. Last month, there was a global ambassador deal signed with Rolex, giving him his first two major endorsements since several companies dropped him in the wake of his troubles.
Perhaps it is another sign that people are moving on.
"I think the media had a lot to do with that; the media tried to keep whatever story it was alive for a significant period of time,'' said Mark Steinberg, Woods' longtime agent. "That's not sour grapes. I think there is significantly different sentiment in the media than the public.
"You come out here and there is true cheering for Tiger. They want to see him do well. At least what I see, there are a lot of people who want to see him play well.''
Woods put it more succinctly: "Life goes forward. This is it.''
And this is a big weekend for Woods, and not so much because a victory would go a long way toward putting the past even further behind.
No, if Woods is to regain his place among the elite, he needs to put himself in this position more often. He needs to again feel the pressure of contention, to battle through the tough days, to be forced to make a putt that he absolutely has to have drop.
And there is enough formidable competition near the top to make it interesting, not that Woods should be considered a lock against the likes of Peter O'Malley and Jarrod Lyle. (It was O'Malley who defeated Woods during the first round of the 2002 Accenture Match Play.) Day, Bubba Watson, Nick Watney and Adam Scott are also in the mix.
Next week brings another challenge at the Presidents Cup, a different kind of competition but one where Woods will again be at the center of attention, in no small part due to the fact that many believe he should not be at Royal Melbourne, that captain Fred Couples made a mistake in picking him for the United States team.
"He's certainly turned it around,'' Day said. "Tiger's known for shoving stuff down people's throats. And he's certainly doing that now. I like the way he's playing. He's got more shots than me in the bag right now, definitely. He hit some shots where I'm just sitting there going, 'Wow.' I feel like I can play a lot of different shots, but some shots that guy hits are just amazing.''
He's certainly hit plenty of good ones through two days here, several that make you remember the old days. But if doubts persist, it is understandable.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.