CHASKA, Minn. -- Tiger Woods watched the last of his three straight birdies take one last turn and drop into the cup. Walking toward the hole, he nodded his head and dangled his tongue out of the side of his mouth, a swagger that spoke volumes.
He is on top of his game at the PGA Championship, and he knows it.
In blustery conditions and on bumpy greens, Woods made key par putts early in his round and big birdies toward the end for a 2-under 70 that gave him a four-shot lead in the final major of the year.
The late string of birdies came in the final hour Friday at Hazeltine, and it changed everything. The final birdie putt gave this major that look of inevitability, with some frightening figures to back it up.
Woods is 8-0 in the majors when leading after 36 holes. He has never lost any tournament when leading by four shots going into the weekend. Of the top 16 players going into the second round, he was the only player to break par.
"In order to have a lead in a major championship, you can't be playing poorly," said Woods, who was at 7-under 137. "And all the times that I've been in this position, I have played well. And I'm playing well now."
Padraig Harrington, who tried to keep pace and hit one shot that Woods called one of the best he had ever seen, was asked after staggering to a 73 whether a four-shot lead was different when it belonged to the world's No. 1 player.
"What do you think?" the Irishman said, grinning. "That's self-evident. We're all well aware of his ability to lead in the front. He gets better from the front. I think he likes that position."
Woods was four shots clear of five players who have their work cut out for them.
Vijay Singh (72), U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover (70) and Brendan Jones (70), the Australian whom Woods beat in his return to competition in February at Match Play, all played in the morning. Harrington and Ross Fisher, who closed with two bogeys for a 68 to become the third player to fall out of the lead, had to cope with the fierce conditions of the afternoon.
It was Woods' largest 36-hole lead in a major since he led by five in the 2005 British Open at St. Andrews.
"I mean, yes, Tiger is the greatest golf I think we've ever seen," Fisher said. "But at the end of the day, he's just like me and you. He's just a human being. He just happens to be damn good at golf. So we've got to work really, really hard to try and compete with him and catch him."
Woods has not lost a 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour in five years, dating to the Byron Nelson when he was revamping his swing. He came to Hazeltine having won his last two tournaments, however, and appears to be hitting his stride.
His finishing kick Friday was particularly impressive.
He avoided his second bogey in three holes with a 12-foot par save at No. 12, missed a birdie opportunity to take the lead on the 13th, then poured it on. The tees on the 352-yard 14th hole were moved up, giving players the option of trying to drive the green. At only 299 with the wind in their favor, it wasn't much of a choice.
Woods flushed his 3-wood onto the green and just onto the fringe, nearly holing the eagle putt. On the par-5 15th, he hit 3-wood through the green and chipped to tap-in range to widen the lead. Then came the 16th, and a 20-foot birdie that allowed Woods to seize control as he goes for a record-tying fifth title at the PGA Championship.
"His game looked solid again today," Harrington said after playing with Woods for the third straight round, dating to Sunday at Firestone when Woods overcame a three-shot deficit to beat him. "I think he's in a good position. The reason he's a good front-runner is he can pick and choose his shots, and he's not been pushed into shots that he doesn't have to hit. And he's very good at that."
Harrington faced one of those shots, and it was a dandy.
Trying to get back into the game at the 15th, his ball on a slope in the bunker, Harrington thought the slope would help him reach the green, and he pounded a 3-wood that was perfect. It stopped 15 feet from the cup.
Woods called it one of the best shots he had ever seen, "worth the price of admission."
"He did say to me actually he would have paid to have seen it," Harrington said. "So I asked him for 50 bucks."
Woods gave nothing to anyone at Hazeltine -- not even himself.
"There's a long way to go," he said.
Still, it was the first time Woods has opened a major with consecutive rounds under par since the 2006 PGA at Medinah.
He will be paired in the final group Saturday with Singh, one of his many rivals. They have not played together since the opening two rounds at the Deutsche Bank Classic in 2007, and not in a major since the first two rounds of the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, which Singh won for his third major.
"Tomorrow, you position yourself," Woods said. "You have to make sure you're there and in position, and I know Vijay isn't going to make a lot of mistakes. He doesn't. He's going to be very consistent."
A dozen players from nine countries remained under par going into the weekend, five of them major champions. The group included Ernie Els, who rebounded with a 68 despite again missing a half-dozen birdie chances inside 8 feet.
Woods built his lead with birdies at the end. Equally important were pars throughout his round.
He made back-to-back 6-foot par putts, the latter after hitting into the bunker on the par-3 fourth, and regained control with a birdie from 20 feet on the sixth and a chip to 4 feet for birdie on the par-5 seventh.
Then came the struggle. After a three-putt bogey from 70 feet on the 10th, he had to scramble for par on the 11th by making a tricky 4-footer, then followed that by going from the right rough through the 12th green, an average chip and a 12-foot par that felt just as good as some of his birdies.
"I could have easily shot a couple over par," he said. "But I turned it into an under par round."
Not so for Phil Mickelson, playing his first major since the U.S. Open while missing most of the summer as his wife and mother battle breast cancer. Lefty again struggled on the greens, particularly the short putts that could have kept his round going.
He wound up with a 74 for the second straight day, the first time he has failed to shoot par or better in the opening two rounds of the PGA Championship. Only late in the day, as the greens turned bumpy, did he make the cut on the number at 4-over 148.
"I'm not going to beat many people putting the way I am," Mickelson said. "I've got to get this thing turned around."
For Woods, he again is headed in the right direction.