In blink of an eye, Woods changed everything

SAN DIEGO -- At the very hole where his return to competitive golf began Thursday with an inelegant double-bogey, Tiger Woods' U.S. Open chances seemed at an end.

Struggling with his game and falling off the pace, Woods' tee shot Friday at Torrey Pines' first hole -- his 10th of the day -- came to rest near a cart path. Unable to take proper relief, the world's No. 1 golfer was faced with playing an awkward shot standing on the concrete.

He was 3-over-par at the time, just coming off a shaky back nine that included an incredible eagle but also four bogeys. And judging by his pained reaction after he swung, the action didn't do much for his surgically repaired left knee.

Within the next 60 minutes, the 108th U.S. Open was about to change dramatically.

At the time, Rocco Mediate and Stuart Appleby were trading the lead. D.J. Trahan and Davis Love III were in the clubhouse waiting for the field to come back to them at 1 under.

Little did they know they would become relegated to secondary status (despite the fact Appleby leads by one stroke through 36 holes).

Woods was about to announce he was back -- and in a big way.

The world's No. 1-ranked golfer somehow turned that shot from the cement into glory, knocking an 8-iron pin high and making birdie at No. 1. He added another at the second. And the fourth. And the fifth.

In just five holes, Woods turned into a factor just a day after walking his first 18-hole round since the Masters. It wasn't exactly Ben Hogan's return from a serious car accident at the 1950 U.S. Open, but it was pretty impressive nonetheless.

"It was nice," was about as much of a compliment as Woods was willing to give himself afterward. "I was just hanging around, hanging around, hanging around. And I just made some putts."

And now Woods has given himself a chance to win his third U.S. Open and 14th major championship.

Woods shot 3-under-par 68 -- one of just seven scores in the 60s on Friday -- with a front-nine 30 that included five birdies, capped by one at the par-5 9th hole. That moved him into a tie for second place, one stroke behind Appleby, who shot 70.

Woods is tied with Mediate (71) and Sweden's Robert Karlsson (70). Trahan (69), Love (69), England's Lee Westwood (71) and Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez -- who had the tournament's best round Friday with a 66 -- are in a tie for fifth another shot back.

For Woods, it set up a third-round pairing with Karlsson, 38, a seven-time winner on the European Tour who lives in Monaco.

"It's definitely a treat," said Karlsson of getting to play with Woods. "It's going to be a great experience to do it. But it's going to be a bit of a challenge with everything that's going to happen around."

It could not be any more boisterous than it was the first two days, when Woods played with Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott. The Southern California fans might have liked to see Mickelson play his way into the third-round pairing, but the San Diego native was a disappointment Friday, shooting 75 and dropping into a tie for 35th along with Scott.

Mickelson and Scott, who are a long way removed from their first U.S. Open titles, will play together again Saturday. They'll tee off at 2:50 p.m. ET. Woods and Karlsson will take to the first tee box exactly three hours later.

Mickelson and Woods were a study in contrasts Friday. Mickelson started off at even par, just three off the lead. But he struggled to keep his ball in the fairway and paid the price.

Woods, meanwhile, bogeyed two of his first three holes, eagled his fourth (the 13th), then made bogeys at the 16th and 17th holes and failed to birdie the short par-5 18th.

"I felt like I gave three shots away there," he said.

Then came the par-4 first hole where he missed his drive to the right, the ball coming to rest within inches of the cart path.

"I just happened to get a great break," Woods said. "Not only did I have a swing and a stance, but also had a lie where I could control my distance. And it was just an 8-iron up there. Put the ball in the center of the green and move on from there. I wasn't trying to do anything in particular with that shot."

Had Woods taken a drop from the cart path, his ball would have been behind a tree. So he had to stand on cement wearing metal spikes, somewhat dangerous given his knee issues.

"That's part of the deal," he said. "That's part of wearing metal spikes. But I would much rather have the lie."

Woods admitted afterward that his knee was sore, but certainly the good score helped dull the pain. And as he has said often, this is nothing new: He has come back from a previous knee surgery to win and seems to do well after long layoffs.

"He's gotten good at coming back from that knee," Love said. "He's very strong … but it's the layoff that's the hard part. He's so strong, the knee's going to be sore at night. But while he's playing, it's probably not going to bother him. It's the layoff from playing golf that's so hard to come back from. And I think that's what's so amazing for him, to pop right back in a U.S. Open."

Yes, Woods has put himself in that familiar position again, hovering near the lead in a major championship. There's a long way to go, but Friday's play was an indication that his game is in excellent shape, knee pain or not.

Anything the others can do to stop him?

"I'll be doing my best to accidentally throw a club towards his sore knee," Appleby joked. "It would be an accident, of course."

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