Tiger heats up at cold Memorial
DUBLIN, Ohio -- For the better part of two days at Muirfield Village, Tiger Woods has made good use of an extra towel on his golf bag, a makeshift handkerchief that has gotten quite a workout.
Allergies were the culprit Thursday, and when rain would have seemingly taken care of that Friday, a fever was not helped by the cold, damp conditions he faced on a gloomy afternoon at the Memorial Tournament.
Signing autographs in near-darkness afterward, Woods lamented an achy body and the bone-chilling temperatures. "This is supposed to be June, isn't it?'' he said.
At least his game is heating up.
For the second straight day, Woods was solid, if not spectacular, moving up the leaderboard at a place where he has won four times and is in position to tie the tournament host, Jack Nicklaus, with 73 PGA Tour victories.
There could be no cooler place to do it, with the "Golden Bear" there to congratulate him Sunday at a tournament he has nurtured since before Woods was born.
Woods' 3-under-par 69 was one of just seven rounds in the 60s, and he finished in a tie for second, a stroke behind leader Rory Sabbatini.
But there are no guarantees with Woods these days, nothing quite as automatic as him hanging around the lead through 36 holes of a tournament. Nobody is engraving his name onto any trophies just yet.
It is against his own standard that Woods competes, a nearly impossible task. He won at Bay Hill just 10 weeks ago, then lost his swing over the course of the past three tournaments, and here we are to wonder whether the one that has worked so well over the past two days will work as well over the next two.
"I'm more pleased with the work I've done this past week, and the things that I'm supposed to be doing for the past few tournaments, I was able to do,'' Woods said. "This is the way that I hit the ball at Bay Hill and the way I hit it at the end of last year. That's what's exciting about it.''
Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy was unintentionally lending some perspective to Woods' career.
McIlroy, who along with Woods was considered a pre-tournament favorite heading into the Masters in April, left Muirfield Village having missed three straight cuts in worldwide tournaments.
That is borderline shocking, considering many were hailing McIlroy as Woods' successor on golf's major stage. He won last year's U.S. Open in record fashion, then following the PGA Championship, where he was injured, he went on a remarkable run: T3-3-2-2-T4-1-T11-2-T5-2-1-3.
The victories were this past fall in Hong Kong and this spring at the Honda Classic. After a third at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, McIlroy seemed poised to duel Woods at Augusta National. Instead, both were Sunday afterthoughts, tying for 40th.
McIlroy rebounded with a playoff loss at the Wells Fargo Championship, where Woods missed the cut, but has since missed cuts at The Players Championship, the BMW PGA Championship and now the Memorial. Luke Donald, who is 6 shots back of Sabbatini in a tie for 27th, has overtaken McIlroy for the No. 1 spot in the world.
Woods, who is ranked ninth, has never missed two consecutive cuts as a pro. And his total in a 16-year career on the PGA Tour is eight -- a number McIlroy, age 23, matched here.
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"I'm definitely hitting the ball better than I did last week,'' McIlroy said. "So I can see an improvement there. But I've still got a long way to go.''
And yet, you won't see McIlroy take the same kind of bashing Woods would receive if he had missed three straight cuts. There will be no cries for McIlroy to dump his swing coach, Michael Bannon, who came over from Northern Ireland to help his star student this week.
Perhaps that is how it should be. Woods has 14 majors, McIlroy one. Woods has won more than 80 times around the world, McIlroy five.
But it is always interesting to note the disparity in angst when it comes to Woods' struggles versus anyone else. Clearly McIlroy is enduring a crisis in confidence, some struggles with his seemingly effortless swing. He made big numbers during both rounds and on Friday was unable to overcome his mistakes, making no birdies.
He'll try to find form next week in Memphis before defending his title at the U.S. Open, where clearly some of the shine from an amazing run earlier this year has worn off.
Woods, meanwhile, has found something after the worst three-tournament stretch of his career. He often talks about distance control, and that has been apparent through two rounds. He's hitting a majority of his approach shots pin high. Each day, he's made a sloppy double-bogey, but there have been no other over-par scores on his card. He's made nine birdies, with only one putt coming from more than 20 feet.
Much like Bay Hill, Muirfield has been a favorable venue over the years. Woods has won Arnold Palmer's tournament seven times, Jack's four. He's on a streak of 22 of his past 23 rounds at par or better.
"When you get these kind of conditions, fast and hard yesterday, and today it's soft but [the wind is] blowing. ... It's nice to be able to hit the ball as well as I did today and control it,'' Woods said.
Hardly a picture of health, the sniffles far outnumbering the bogeys, Woods could at least feel good about his position on the leaderboard.
A couple more rounds like Friday would undoubtedly be a nice cure for what ails him.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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