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Tiger Woods halfway home at Bay Hill

ORLANDO, Fla. -- They don't need much reason to celebrate late on a Friday afternoon at Bay Hill. Golf is the excuse for most gatherings, although golf did get in the way as the heat intensified.

There was Tiger Woods making a move, climbing the leaderboard, settling in at the top after birdies at two of the last three holes. Whatever your feelings about Woods, his ability to make you pay attention is unquestioned, as many of those soaking in the sun and suds would attest.

A giddiness, a sense of excitement prevailed. Thirty-six holes still remain at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but plenty wondered if this is the week Woods will win again. And he gave good reason to consider the possibilities.

He hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation during a second-round 65 that saw him make seven birdies and no bogeys. The one green he missed was in the fringe, which means he putted. He birdied all of the par-5s, a hallmark of his dominating days.

But it is important to note that Woods has been here before along the comeback trail. He was tied for the lead with nine holes to go at the 2011 Masters and finished tied for fourth. He held the 36-hole lead in November at the Australian Open, only to shoot a Saturday 75 and rally to finish third.

Two months ago in Abu Dhabi, Woods took a share of the 54-hole lead into the final round against unheralded Englishman Robert Rock and could do no better than 72. Rock won with a 70 and Rory McIlroy slipped into second.

So this 36-hole lead means … well, there's a reason tournaments are 72 holes.

"We have a long way to go,'' Woods admitted.

He is tied with fellow Southern Californian Charlie Wi, who has never won on the PGA Tour but played against Woods plenty in their junior golf days. Another shot back is Jason Dufner, who has been hanging around the lead all month in Florida. Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, finding his form again, shot 63 on Friday and is also a stroke back. Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson are also in the mix.

There was a time, of course, when victory from this position was all but a formality, especially at Bay Hill -- where Woods has won six times.

And it serves as a reminder of the old days, when some went so far as to admit that Woods would win if he were in this position.

"I think the view in the locker room, without saying it out loud, was that the tournament was finished,'' Colin Montgomerie once said. "And it was who was going to finish second, really. And it turned out like that.''

Montgomerie, who was in the midst of winning seven consecutive European Tour money titles, said that here at Bay Hill -- following the first round in 2000.

Much, of course, has changed since then, including the near-lock status with Woods in the lead of a tournament. Australia and Abu Dhabi are recent proof of that. So was the Chevron World Challenge, where Woods trailed heading into the final round, rallied to take the lead, gave it up, then birdied the last two holes to win by one over Zach Johnson.

That victory was unofficial, but it came with a healthy number of world-ranking points, a big reason why he is 18th in the world right now instead of middling in the 40s.

Of course, there's plenty to be positive about, too. Nobody asked Woods about his troublesome Achilles, the one that knocked him out at Doral a mere 12 days ago -- a medical drama that continued into this week. Five days ago we wondered if he could walk; now he's leading the tournament.

Woods, for the most part, has been driving the ball beautifully. He got lucky when an errant drive at the 10th hole Friday hit a fence and stayed in bounds. He hit a poor shot at the par-5 16th, barely clearing the water. Those are the kind of breaks you need. But he hit 10 of 14 fairways, those 17 greens and really was never in danger of making a bogey.

"I think people have to stop comparing him to past days,'' said Hunter Mahan, who played with Woods during the first two rounds and also works with the same instructor as Woods, Sean Foley. "People have to look at it from right now and look at him almost as if he's a new golfer.

"He still is super talented. He's been through a massive rebuilding process, probably unlike anything we've seen before. His game is good. All the mechanical stuff is really, really good. And you are not going to see him blow up and have huge rounds anymore. You're going to see him play good, solid rounds of golf. All the tools are sharp and getting better than they used to be."

Judging Woods by his remarkable record is unfair, as Mahan suggests. He set such an unbelievable standard, one that would be nearly impossible to match even if nothing had transpired in Woods' life to make the challenge even more daunting of adding to his 71 PGA Tour victories and 14 majors.

But the fans remember the old Tiger. They remain in awe of the sound made when club hits ball, the trajectory that looks like no other, the softness with which a perfectly struck iron lands. There are still flashes of those days, as was the case on Friday afternoon.

In his PGA Tour career, Woods is 33-8 when holding a share of the 36-hole lead, a statistic that has lost some of its meaning these days. That was the old Tiger. The new Tiger brings many unknowns, plenty of doubts.

But those fans will be ringing the course in full force Saturday at Bay Hill, enjoying the atmosphere and tipping a few concoctions -- until Woods plays through, of course, when you can't help but stop to see what happens next.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.