Tiger Woods knows battle only half over

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- More than an hour after he took the 36-hole lead Friday in a stroke-play tournament for the second time in three weeks, Tiger Woods was a solitary figure on the putting green at Sherwood Country Club, working on a stroke that kept a strong round from being phenomenal.

The sun was setting behind the mountains, and the temperature kept falling as well. As darkness set in, there was Woods, hitting putt after putt, sometimes using just one hand, fiddling with a grip that he admitted earlier he has been toying with recently.

While practicing after a round is common for pro golfers, it isn't necessarily the case at an offseason money grab such as the Chevron World Challenge. And, in truth, it hasn't always been the case for Woods, who during his two-year winless stretch would often not be seen working on his game after a round.

Whether that was due to his various injuries or a mind on other issues, the lack of practice time certainly has been a factor in his struggles. Woods has even admitted that he didn't put in the work on his short game that has been such a hallmark of his career.

As his ball-striking again produced some jaw-dropping efforts during the second round of the Chevron, it was his putting -- despite making several nice longer putts -- that let him down. Woods missed three putts inside 4 feet -- and still shot 5-under-par 67.

"That was the highest score I probably could have shot today,'' Woods said. "I hit the ball really well and hit one bad shot and almost made birdie on that hole if I would have hit a decent putt.''

That came at the par-5 fifth, where Woods missed his tee shot into some trees, hit a provisional, found the first, chipped out, then rocketed a 3-wood onto the green from nearly 260 yards that stopped 4 feet from the cup. That would have been some birdie.

But Woods missed the putt. And he three-putted the next hole. And he missed another short one at the 17th.

And yet, he emerged with a three-shot lead over Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi, leading again after two rounds, just as he did three weeks ago at the Australian Open.

"To put it simply, today he played like an artist,'' said Choi, who was paired in the final group with Woods and shot 73. "He really played well. It's pretty clear that he's recovered and is back in his old form again, and he missed a few putts, but it was really good to see him play well.''

And it was a wild day on the scorecard for Woods, who made two eagles, five birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey. The latter came at the par-3 15th, where twice he has struggled to gauge the wind. Woods wasn't displeased with the 8-iron shot he hit, just the bad break he got with the wind. "There was nothing I could do,'' he said. "I hit a good shot.''

Woods dropped two shots to par there, but Choi lost four as he hit two balls in the water on the same hole.

Meanwhile, Kuchar was climbing the leaderboard to snag a spot in the final pairing with Woods on Saturday. Kuchar also shot 67, despite a bogey at the 15th.

Coming off a victory last week in China at the World Cup with Gary Woodland, Kuchar is pleased with the state of his game, having been on a month-long trek of golf that included a playing vacation in New Zealand prior to playing in the Australian Open, Presidents Cup and World Cup.

It was during a practice round with Woods at the Australian Open that Kuchar realized the former world No. 1 golfer's game was coming around.

"I was impressed with how well he was keeping up with Dustin [Johnson] off the tee,'' Kuchar said of the long-hitting Johnson, who was third this year on the PGA Tour in driving distance, averaging 314 yards off the tee. "He seemed to have re-found the length again. It seemed for awhile the driver had lost distance and accuracy. He seemed to be struggling with that. I was surprised the last year or two how much distance he seemed to have lost.

" ... It's fun to see him regaining form again. He's exciting to watch and exciting for the game of golf.''

Woods was certainly entertaining on Friday. Besides a par at the fifth, he hit a 5-iron to 5 feet at the second to set up an eagle, then made a birdie at the third. He followed with a couple of poor holes, but regained his form on the back nine as he hit a 4-iron to 15 feet for an eagle at the 11th, followed with two more birdies at the 12th and 13th.

He made just three pars on the back nine, but one was at the 18th, where he got up and down from a bunker and rolled in a 12-footer to keep a three-shot advantage.

There was a time when a three-shot lead through 36 holes for Woods meant the tournament was over.

But he led by four at this point a year ago at the Chevron, and again through 54 holes, only to cough it up during the final round before losing in a sudden-death playoff at Graeme McDowell.

Three weeks ago at The Lakes Golf Club in Sydney, Woods led by one through two rounds and bogeyed the first two holes of the third round of the Australian Open. He ended up shooting 75, and a Sunday rally came up two strokes short.

So there is still work to be done from this position, despite all the positive signs.

"I want the lead after the four days,'' he said. "Two days is nice, but four days is even better. I know I'm playing better, and it's nice to see my position on the leaderboard kind of equating to it.

"It didn't really show up at the Presidents Cup because we were playing a different format, but two stroke-play events in a row I've played really well.''

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