SAN FRANCISCO -- On Friday evening as the sun slowly went down at The Olympic Club, Tiger Woods was back atop the world of golf. With 36 holes left in the tournament, the 14-time major champion was halfway to completing his mission of winning a fourth U.S. Open title. He was in a three-way tie for the lead at 1 under par with Jim Furyk and David Toms. Tiger had shot an even-par 70 on Friday on one of the most difficult Open courses in recent years.
Over the past two days, he had played better golf than all the men who had sought to unseat him as truly the best player in the world. From now until he retires, he could win 10 times a year, but only a win at a major can solidify his return to the top of the game.
The last time Tiger had a piece of the lead at a major after two rounds was in August 2009 at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine in Minnesota. Like at Olympic, he shot a 70 that Friday, but he had a four-shot lead. And like 2012, he had started his 2009 with wins at Bay Hill and Memorial. Three other wins came before he arrived at Hazeltine.
That Friday, when Y.E. Yang was still best known as the winner of the Honda Open, Tiger was headed toward his 15th major and was one step closer to catching Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors. Then all hell broke loose. Yang caught and passed Tiger on Sunday to win the PGA, breaking Woods' streak of 14 wins at majors when he had the 54-hole lead. And then a few months later, on Thanksgiving night, his personal life began to unravel before the world.
That Friday night in Chaska, Minn., Tiger couldn't have known it would take him three years to again sit on a lead at a major. Now he's back on the cliff, looking off into Saturday's third round at Olympic with a different caddie and a swing instructor who stood with him three years ago.
It's Tiger's tournament to win. Sunday evening is a long way off. Olympic will test Tiger and the field in ways Hazeltine couldn't in 2009. Tiger's mindset must be different on this Friday night in the city by the bay.
He can find comfort in knowing he's won 34 times in the 42 events in which he's had a share of the 36-hole lead. He can marvel at his eight wins in nine majors when he had a piece of the lead at the halfway point.
This is his history, and it should give him some assurance that he can conquer the mighty Olympic.
His partner on this climb will be Furyk, a player he knows well from their partnership in Presidents Cups and Ryder Cups through the years. They won't be combatants Saturday. It's too early for that. They will be in survival mode together on moving day.
"I've always admired how [Furyk] maneuvered his way around the golf course," Tiger said. "That's one of the reasons why we were such great partners together in the Cups is that we think alike.
"I just hit the ball further. But we maneuver ourselves around the golf course the same way. And I think that's one of the reasons why we gelled so well."
It could take everything in their beings Saturday to come away unscathed from Olympic. Through the first two rounds, the par-70 Lake course at Olympic has played to a 74.48 stroke average.
After rounds of 69 and 70, and with no residual effects of knee injuries or past swing funks, Tiger looks to have overcome, at least for the time being, any lingering scars from past failures. His wins at Bay Hill and Memorial earlier this year after a nearly three-year slump showed he still knows how to win. But taking a major is harder work.
Since his downfall after Thanksgiving night 2009, he has had three top-five finishes in his seven appearances in majors, but he was a chaser in those events.
Chasing is an unnatural instinct for Tiger, who has been a front-runner since he was a boy playing in junior tournaments. Many of the TV graphics say Tiger is on the prowl. It's a nice play off his name, but that's not the most comfortable place for Tiger or where his pursuers expect to find him.
Tiger has never come from behind on Sunday to win a major.
When he tees off Saturday at 6:05 p.m. ET with Furyk, everyone will be watching to see what Tiger will do. The world knows his history. It knows that it's been a long time since he was in the lead halfway through a major. The world knows what it means for Tiger to reclaim his mantle as the best player in the world, regardless of what the rankings say.
As Tiger practiced his putting Friday night with coach Sean Foley watching his stroke, the 36-year-old divorced father of two looked happy and satisfied that he was back in a familiar setting. Father's Day wasn't yet on his mind. He has to make it through Saturday to get to Sunday.
"Well, being patient is certainly something that we have to do in major championships, and I think I've done a pretty good job of that over the years," Tiger said. "I won my fair share, and I understand how to do it."