ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- While Rory McIlroy was spraying up sand in the desert and swiping it from his putting line -- a no-no in the rules of golf -- Tiger Woods found his putting stroke and put himself in contention at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, where the two will play together again Saturday and chase the leaders.
Woods' 3-under-par 69 put him in a tie along with McIlroy, two strokes behind unheralded leader Thorbjorn Olesen, a non-winner ranked 171st in the world. Woods and McIlroy will play with Sweden's Robert Karlsson in the third round.
"I thought I played well today; I hit the ball just as well as I did yesterday and made a couple more putts today, which is nice," Woods said. "But the golf course is playing difficult. It's starting to speed up a little bit and the greens were quicker, drier, and it was tough.
"No one is going low. Everyone's pretty bunched and I think we have a majority of the field within nine shots of the lead."
Woods, who is making his 2012 season debut at the European Tour event, climbed the leaderboard at Abu Dhabi Golf Club by making four birdies in an eight-hole stretch, finally seeing some putts drop after a frustrating first round that saw him take 34 strokes on the greens.
On Friday, Woods hit fewer fairways and greens, but putted only 28 times. He made five birdies, including his longest putt of the tournament -- a 25-footer at the 11th hole. Although he hit just six of 14 fairways, he hit 13 greens in regulation.
"Yesterday his control of his golf ball was as good as I've seen it," said No. 1-ranked Luke Donald, who played with Woods and McIlroy during the first two rounds. "(He hit) 17 greens, he was shaping it both ways, and so that's always a daunting sign for us.
"He looked like he didn't hit it as well today, but he scored better because of the short game, and I'm one who knows all too well that you don't have to hit it great to win. You can scrap it around a little bit, but if your short game is on, you can score."
McIlroy may have been tied for the lead were it not for a careless breach of the rules at the ninth hole. With his ball about six feet off the green, McIlroy began brushing sand from his line on the putting surface. Donald alerted McIlroy that he wasn't sure that was allowed, and sure enough, a rules official confirmed that it called for a two-stroke penalty.
Only if your ball is on the green can you swipe sand from your line.
"I didn't even think about it," McIlroy said. "I just went and brushed the sand and Luke said, 'Don't think you can do that.' And it came to me right away. One of those things. I'll definitely not do it again. Just a mental error."
It led to one of two double bogeys on his front nine, but McIlroy still managed six birdies and shot 72 to tie Woods at 5-under 139.
That left them two strokes back of Olesen, a 22-year-old Dane who last year finished 48th on the European Tour's Race to Dubai with three second-place finishes. He has yet to win on the European Tour.
Woods again looked strong from tee to green, hitting an abundance of solid shots and seemingly swinging with less effort than in the past, especially last year when he was sidelined for four months with knee and Achilles injuries.
"I'm getting the club in the right position, and I'm getting my speed back," he said.
Olesen shot 67 Friday and finished just as Woods, McIlroy and Donald were starting the second round.
Olesen noted the strength of the field, which features 11 of the top 25 in the world (although No. 4 Martin Kaymer, who won the past two Abu Dhabi titles, missed the cut).
"There's so many good guys in this event. It's tough," said Olesen, who is playing the tournament for the first time. "If Tiger plays well, he's unbeatable, I think. But I just try to play my own game and try to be up there on Sunday and play well.
"For me, it's very special. It's not many years ago I was watching them on TV. Of course it's special and I know it's tough, but I'm trying to keep playing my own game and do my best."
Bob Harig is ESPN.com's senior golf writer.