GULLANE, Scotland — So much was still to happen when Tiger Woods arrived Friday afternoon at Muirfield’s 18th green. At that moment, the flags above the massive grandstands stood at full attention, a warning to those yet to tee off. The golf course behind him had settled in for a nice, long bake in the Scottish sun. Brown and crisp as a hashbrown, it didn’t appear inclined to give up much.
With that, Woods drew his putter back and drained the 15-footer that gave him his final birdie and an even-par round of 71 for the day, leaving him at 2 under par at the midway point of the 142nd British Open, eliciting a jab with the left hand, his putter a wand. He is, as he likes to say, right there, a shot behind leader Miguel Angel Jimenez, the fascinating caricature of a Spaniard, every bit 49 years old on his face but more 21 in his heart.
“I have not the right to do it?” Jimenez said after his own 71 pushed him up a board in which everyone seemed to be moving down. “Only the young people can do it?”
No, right now, it seems a nice, solid handful of people could do it, and they’re worth discussing. But first Woods, because there were a few things about his game that made that three-birdie, three-bogey round seem ominous. As his playing partner, former U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell said: “He’s going to be dangerous.”
The most dangerous element here, for the moment, is Muirfield itself. It yielded four rounds in the 60s all of Friday, when 16 failed to break 80. It cast aside Rory McIlroy, the second-ranked player in the world, who missed the cut at 12 over. And so when Woods finished his round close to 2 p.m., he could go get a meal and watch the field come back to him on a course that became harder — to the touch, and to the scorecard — as the day wore on.
The grind was “beyond anything I’ve ever played in,” said Brandt Snedeker, who played the final six holes in 7 over to fall off the leaderboard. “It’s very, very hard to hit a ball where you’re supposed to, and very, very hard to keep the ball where you’re supposed to.”
So the list of threats to Jimenez’s lead is pared down, but filled with stanch competitors. England’s Lee Westwood, a major contender without a major championship, shot 68 early and joins Woods at 2 under. Sweden’s Henrik Stenson is also 2 under after his second straight 70, and Dustin Johnson joined them there after a 72 that featured two birdies, an eagle and five bogeys.
But consider the 19 players within four shots of the lead. That list includes Phil Mickelson, who’s 1 over despite a four-putt on the 16th. It includes Masters champ Adam Scott, quiet with rounds of 71 and 72 to sit 1 over. It includes two-time major winner Angel Cabrera, who looked as if he might join Jimenez before he bogeyed three of his final five holes to land at 1 under. It includes first-round leader Zach Johnson, who held the lead much of the day before stumbling to 4 over in his final five holes.
“It was a grind,” Zach Johnson said. “It was a grind to my last three-, four-footer on 18.”
Thus, we reach another major weekend in which Woods has ground himself into contention. His stretch of futility is, by now, well documented. The most recent of his 14 major championships came at the 2008 U.S. Open, which was in many ways his apex, because he won it in a 19-hole playoff on a broken leg. Since then, he has played 16 majors without a win — but has finished in the top six eight times.
“I’ve put myself there,” Woods said. “I just haven’t won. I’ve had the chances on the back nine on many of those Sundays. Just one of those things where I haven’t gotten it.”
This is not, though, a casual pursuit, not just “one of those things.” What lies ahead for Woods on Saturday and Sunday at Muirfield will help define his career, furthering one of two things: his legacy or his drought.
And there are some discouraging recent signs. In the six majors since the start of 2012, Woods has cumulatively scored 6 under par in the first and second rounds. Thereafter, he is 29 over. This includes the weekend at the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic, which he entered with a share of the lead, then promptly closed with rounds of 75 and 73 to tumble into a tie for 21st. It includes last year’s British Open at Royal Lytham, which he opened with a pair of 67s, then closed 70-73.
“I give myself chances,” Woods said. “And this is going to be a difficult one.”
True, because even as Woods played in the morning, when there was still at least a few drops of moisture in the earth beneath Muirfield, balls ran through fairways into the deep, gnarly grass. Come the weekend, the leaders will play late, when the conditions are the most difficult.
But Woods, too, has a few things going for him. First, his putter. Put aside, for a moment, the two three-putts on his front side Friday — missed par putts from three feet at 4 and five feet at 8. Beyond that were the par-savers, the kind of crucial putts he made when he won majors.
“I lost track of how many 8-, 10-, 15-footers he’s made for par over the last two days,” McDowell said.
Add to that how he is striking the ball. In McDowell’s estimation, no one in the world is hitting his irons better. And how many drivers — infuriating, erratic drivers — has Woods hit at Muirfield? “About eight or 10,” he said. Where? “On the range.”
So when McDowell and Woods finished up at 18, McDowell delivered a message to the world’s top-ranked player.
“That was a clinic the last two days,” McDowell said he told Woods. “That was very impressive.”
Whoever wins at Muirfield, be it Woods or one of the accomplished men who chases him, will have to be impressive. The sun is not forecast to go away. Neither is the challenge of the golf course, hard in every sense of the word.