BETHESDA, Md. - Standing in the rough at the bottom of a steep slope behind the sixth green, Tiger Woods was getting perilously close to missing the cut in his own tournament. He needed a terrific shot just to have a chance for a bogey that would put him nine shots behind the leader.
Sure enough, he hit one.
The ball landed 6 feet from the hole. 'Pure luck,' he called it, but it was the turning point of his round. Using his weighted-down putter, he made bogey and went on a roll. He gained shots on his next three holes, a birdie-birdie-birdie finish to a 4-under round of 66, matching Mike Weir for the best score of the day.
Woods was 1 under at the halfway point of the AT&T National on Friday, tied for 12th but with a lot of work still to do in his inaugural event as a tournament host. Stuart Appleby and K.J. Choi shared the lead, both having somewhat tamed the Blue Course at Congressional Country Club with rounds of 66 and 67 for a 7-under total of 133.
'I'm back in the tournament,' Woods said. 'And hopefully I can shoot another round in the 60s tomorrow and move my way up the board.'
The turnaround from Woods' miserable 73 on Thursday was stark. He made only two bogeys instead of seven. He needed only 25 putts instead of 34. He didn't have a single three-putt. He made six putts longer than 8 feet - including a 22-footer at No. 12 - after missing everything from 8 feet and beyond the day before.
His secret? He put some lead tape on his putter, forcing him to put more oomph in his stroke after leaving so many putts short well short of the hole the day before.
'Made it a little bit heavier,' Woods said, 'because the greens were a touch on the slow side.'
The putter was in the bag, though, when Woods was in trouble at the long par-4 sixth, a hole that plays as a par 5 for the club's members. He had to lay up after putting his tee shot in the heavy rough, then botched his third shot by hitting the ball over the green.
Then he bailed himself out with the flop shot to 6 feet.
'The flop shot was actually just pure luck,' he said. 'I was just trying to get it on the green and it just happened to stay up on the top shelf. I didn't want to have that go to waste by missing a makable putt, and I was grinding pretty hard on that putt to make it. Knocked it in - and birdied the last three.'
At the final hole, the large gallery that had constantly poured its adoration upon Woods for bringing the PGA Tour back to the Washington area got the payoff it had been wanting. After two days of stone-faced club-tossing over bad shots, Woods waved to the crowd with a nod of satisfaction after his 14-foot birdie putt.
By then, there was no question Woods would be back for the weekend.
'I was just trying to get myself back in the tournament. I didn't know what the cut was going to be,' he said. 'I was just trying to get to even par, 1-under par.'
The rest of the field was taking notice, too. Appleby, who made a 16-foot putt to save par at No. 18 and has only two bogeys in the tournament, isn't about to concede that he has a comfortable lead over the world's No. 1 golfer.
'You always expect him to be there, so it becomes pretty much standard practice,' Appleby said. 'It's like playing the British Open, expecting it to blow every day. You don't have to look up and know it's windy; you don't have to look up and know Tiger is going to be there.
'You can look at it one way or the other and say, 'Well, Tiger Woods is chasing somebody or chasing us down or chasing me down.' Or you can turn around and go, 'Well, I expected him to and that's just the way it is' - and that makes you concentrate more on your own game.'
Choi, who won Jack Nicklaus' Memorial tournament two weeks ago, is going for the big-name-host double after two solid rounds at Woods' event. The highlight of Choi's round Friday was an 11-foot birdie putt at No. 16 that took a full lap around the lip of the cup before falling in.
'When I saw it fall in, I was momentarily shocked,' Choi said. 'But I hope to see more putts like that over the weekend.'
The course is expected to play tougher over the weekend as the temperature settles into the 90s, firming up the fairways and greens. It was already tough enough for top-five players Phil Mickelson (147) and Adam Scott (148), both on the wrong side of the 4-over 144 cut line.
Mickelson, rusty after a layoff due to a wrist injury, was doomed by a 7 at the par-5 16th, where he had to call in a rules official after back-to-back shots: one that landed against a tree and a chain-link fence, and another that landed by a golf cart tire. Carts were aplenty on the hole as part of the Secret Service contingent following Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Rice, who took up golf about two years ago, said she wasn't in danger of being hit by one of Mickelson's wayward shots.
'It was fine,' she told The Golf Channel. 'But I recognized that wicked hook from my own game.'
Divots: Woods' drawing power showed with an estimated attendance of 28,110, far greater than the typical Friday for the Booz Allen Classic, the Washington PGA Tour stop disbanded last year. ... Woods has seven career victories when trailing by six strokes or more after 36 holes. ... Mickelson has missed back-to-back cuts for the first time since 2002. He also withdrew from last month's Memorial, which means he has failed to play the weekend for three straight tournaments for the first time since 1995. ... Shaun Micheel withdrew after the ninth hole. He had surgery on his right foot several years ago and aggravated the injury Friday.