Tiger turning things around at Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- He isn't on the Players Championship leaderboard. His two-day total puts him behind 29 other players. But at least Tiger Woods is still here, which is more than you can say for world No. 1 Rory McIlroy or for Eldrick, circa 2011.

A year ago, Woods was already long gone, thanks to his nine-hole, first-round Limp Off. And a year before that, he withdrew during his final round of The Players. He beat the TPC Sawgrass crowds out of town, but that was about it for victories.

Woods is still a semi-long shot to win this thing. He's tied for 30th, and six strokes off the lead held by Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar and the human rain delay, Kevin Na. Plus, this course and Woods have had their share of fistfights.

But unlike McIlroy, who is 3-for-3 on Friday trunk slamming at The Players, Woods is sticking around. He shot a 4-under-par 68 on Friday, a half-dozen shots better than his opening-round 74.

"I probably could have gotten one or two more out of it," he said afterward. "But I really played well today. I was just very consistent. Nothing spectacular, just real solid golf."

He's right. The 68 could have been a 66, easy. He missed at least two birdie putts that did everything but establish state residency in the holes. Instead, they dipped past the cup at the last moment.

However, that wasn't the story of Woods' day. It wasn't so much what he missed, but what he made.

For only the second time this season, Woods sank four birdie putts in a row. He did it during the second round at Bay Hill. He did it during the second round at The Players.

Woods went on to win that Arnold Palmer Invitational. But Bay Hill isn't TPC Sawgrass. Tougher course, better field.

Still, it's all about "the process," as Woods has described (for the millionth time) the third major swing change of his remarkable career. Or in Friday's case, it was about progress.

It wasn't just about the putts that fell; it was about Woods' body language. I'll do the translating: It looked looser, more confident.

"It was fun to see him kind of get things going, and it looked like he freed up a little bit and started playing some golf," said playing partner Rickie Fowler, who a day earlier had mentioned how carefree Tiger played during their cash-game matches back home in Jupiter, Fla. "You know, he's hitting a lot of good shots and hitting a lot of good putts."

You don't want to read too much into this. After all, it was one round. Just like his 74 on Thursday, when a certain hysteria swept through the place ("Tiger is going to miss the cut!!! Flee to your survival shelters!!!), was just one round.

But there was a lot to like about Friday's version of Woods. Without going too statty, Woods finally started to treat the par-5s here like they owed him money. He birdied three of four of them Friday, compared to only one a day earlier.

Here's another number that matters: zero. That's how many times Woods has missed consecutive cuts as a tour pro. He didn't make it to the weekend at Quail Hollow but made the cut here with ease.

His right shoe didn't make it to Saturday's round. He blew out an eyelet on the shoe during his tee shot on No. 5. Woods told caddie Joe LaCava. LaCava told a course official. The course official told a Tiger rep, who delivered a replacement shoe while Woods was in the middle of the sixth fairway.

"Just the way it goes," he said.

Do you hit a ball hard enough to cause a shoe eyelet to implode? I don't. But Woods clearly found the sweet spot on his swing during Friday's round. The misses were fewer. There were none of those Tiger drop-the-club-in-disgust-after-a-crummy-swing moments.

He spent his pre-round practice session at the back end of the driving range. About 75 or so fans watched him warm up -- a golf glove stuffed under his right armpit as he hit his wedges, irons, woods and driver.

The round started a little sluggishly: three consecutive pars, causing a kid in the gallery to tell his dad, "Tiger is just mentally off his game."

Really? He birdied the fourth hole, bogeyed the fifth, replaced his shoe on the sixth (and parred the hole), parred the seventh and then went birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie.

The roars didn't blow the roof tiles off the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, but they were loud enough for the rest of the field to notice.

"Sixty-six was my number today," Woods said. "I figured that would have been a good way to go into the weekend, being probably four or five back."

He was off by two.

If Woods can somehow take a razor to his scorecard again Saturday and shave, say, three strokes off the lead, well, anything is possible Sunday, right? But for now, why get ahead of ourselves?

Enjoy the moment. Woods is.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.