SAN DIEGO -- Tiger Woods looked like any other player trying to survive a U.S. Open, head bowed in frustration with each shot that found trouble and kept him farther from the lead.
One hole changed everything.
With his metal spikes on a cement path and a tree over his head, he fired an 8-iron around the branches and over the bunker to 18 feet for a birdie that sent him charging into contention at Torrey Pines on Friday.
He never missed another fairway or another green. He found a rhythm that made it hard to believe he had been missing for two months while recovering from knee surgery. And with four more birdies for a 30 on the back nine, Woods rallied for a 3-under 68 that left him one shot behind Stuart Appleby.
"I felt that if I played well in that back nine, I could definitely get back to even par for the tournament and I would be right back in the championship," Woods said. "And all of a sudden, I started running them in from everywhere."
He made a 20-foot birdie on No. 2, then a 25-foot birdie up the slope on No. 4, swiping the air with a clenched fist. Facing a slick putt from 18 feet above the cup on the fifth hole, it broke sharply toward the ocean at the end and disappeared for another birdie.
Even on a sore knee, Woods hit his stride.
"He wants to play some golf, we want to play some golf," Appleby said, and then he joked: "And I'll be doing my best to accidentally throw a club toward his sore knee. It will be an accident, of course."
Appleby had reason to smile.
He recovered from consecutive bogeys early on his back nine with birdies on the par 5s, none bigger than the 18th. He laid up into a divot and left his wedge at the bottom of the green, 45 feet away. Appleby was just trying to get it close and get off the course with a share of the lead when it dropped in for an unlikely birdie.
That gave him a 70 and his first lead in a major since he was one shot ahead of Woods going into the final round of the 2007 Masters.
Appleby was at 3-under 139 and will play in the final group -- in prime time on the East Coast -- with Rocco Mediate, who seems to play his best in the toughest conditions. Mediate reached 4-under at one point before settling for a 71, one shot behind at 140.
Woods will play with Robert Karlsson, whom he defeated in a meaningless Ryder Cup match two years ago. Karlsson shot 70.
Phil Mickelson had trouble keeping his 3-wood in the fairway, made six bogeys and shot 75 to fall seven shots behind.
Everything changed so quickly.
Woods winced and slumped his shoulders when his tee shot found the bunker on the par-3 16th, leading to bogey. Then came another shot into the greenside bunker on the 17th, and another bogey. And his tee shot on the 18th, where the tees were moved forward, landed in the bunker and made him settle for par.
That put him 3 over for the tournament at the turn, six shots behind.
"I feel like I lost three shots there, because I bogeyed 16, 17 and then I don't make a birdie on 18," Woods said. "I said, 'If I clean up the back nine, I should be able to get back to even par for the tournament. And I ended up two better than that."
He had four other good looks for birdie on his back nine, but no complaints.
"I shot 30 on my back nine in a U.S. Open," Woods said. "That's not too bad."
Better than that. It was just one stroke more than the U.S. Open record for nine holes, last done by Vijay Singh in 2003.
Appleby, Mediate and Karlsson were jostling for the lead throughout the afternoon, and Appleby finally grabbed it on his final hole. That also ended the tournament for 11 players who were more than 10 shots out of the lead, the cut falling to 7-over.
Woods was on the opposite side of the course, and despite the famous "June Gloom" layer of fog that blanketed Torrey Pines, he was easy to find. A high-charged gallery, crammed in the bleachers and behind the ropes, rose to their feet with every birdie.
He finished his round with a fairway metal that hung in the gray skies and landed on the green at the par-5 ninth, running just over the back. Woods chipped to 6 feet and made the birdie, just moments after Appleby had made his on the 18th.
"I was just hanging around, hanging around," Woods said. "This golf course will bite you quick. You've just got to hang in there and stay patient."
Woods almost always bites back at Torrey Pines, where he has won the Buick Invitational a record six times. This one is far more meaningful, and his late charge left him in great position to chase a U.S. Open title that has eluded him since 2002 at Bethpage Black, the last time it was held on a municipal golf course.
Mickelson, a San Diego native and three-time winner at Torrey Pines, could not keep up in the featured pairing with Woods.
He again played without a driver in the bag, and this time it might have hurt him. Lefty could not reach the par-5 13th, where Woods got home in two and made eagle, and he was 30 yards behind Woods on the sixth hole, putting his approach on the tongue of a bunker that led to one of his six bogeys.
Mickelson was at 4-over 146 and in a tie for 35th in a hometown U.S. Open he called a "once in a lifetime" chance.
Only eight players remained under par on a city-owned golf course that has been universally praised as fair -- a word seldom heard at the U.S. Open -- but not necessarily easy.
Woods and a few others only made it look that way.
Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain made a quiet charge, and his birdie on the par-5 ninth -- three groups behind the circus following the top three players in the world -- gave him a tournament-best 66. He was at 1-under 141, along with Lee Westwood of England (71), Davis Love III (69) and D.J. Trahan (69).
"If you're 1 under par through two rounds in a U.S. Open, you're doing something right," Trahan said. "Like anybody will tell you, this isn't a birdie contest. This is a survival contest."
Woods was in that survival mode early, three-putting from long range for bogey on No. 10 and hitting his approach into the right rough for another bogey on No. 12. He was sliding down the leaderboard until smashing a drive on the 614-yard 13th hole -- with the tee pushed all the way back -- and hitting a fairway metal to 10 feet for eagle.
But the momentum was shifting as quickly as clouds replaced patches of sunshine along the Pacific, and Woods quickly fell of the pace. Just as suddenly, his name emerged atop the leaderboard.
Woods got a big break with his errant tee shot, the ball going so far to the right that it avoided the ankle-deep grass and came to rest just inches from the cart path on a thin lie. Taking free relief would have put him behind a tree, so Woods steadied himself and fired away with an 8-iron from 157 yards.
One birdie putt later, he was on his way.
"Whether you call it a zone or not, I got into a rhythm," Woods said. "I've been there before. I've had nice rounds like that. I was just trying to get back to even par. I just happened to make some putts. That was it."