HOYLAKE, England - Tiger Woods couldn't even see the flag, but he knew his 4-iron was close to perfect. Thousands of fans who were crammed elbow-to-elbow on a grassy hillock above the 14th green saw the ball bang into the cup, but they had no idea who hit it.
Seconds later, when Woods emerged from behind a row of bunkers and high-fived his caddie, the mystery was over.
The question Friday was whether the British Open was over, too.
Woods put on a clinic with his long irons, none more spectacular than his eagle from 209 yards on one of the toughest holes at Royal Liverpool. It carried him to a 7-under 65, matching his best score ever in a major, and gave him a one-shot lead over Ernie Els.
"I was just trying to land the ball on the front edge and let it chase on there and get my 4 and go on," Woods said. "It happened to go in."
But when asked whether the tournament was over, Woods tapped the table.
"I'm not here with the (claret) jug," he said. "We've got a long way to go, man."
Even so, his name atop the leaderboard is a daunting sight at Grand Slam events. This is the seventh time Woods has had the 36-hole lead in a major, and he has never lost from out front.
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That didn't seem to bother Els. When the Big Easy headed to the first tee, the scoreboard already showed Woods at 12 under par.
Instead of getting spooked, Els was inspired.
"If he's 12 under, there's some birdies to be made out there," Els said. "I had to get my share of them."
Els made birdie on all the par 5s, and picked up two more strokes with shots that were every bit as good as Woods', though not quite as dramatic. One was a bump-and-run 7-iron that stopped rolling 2 feet from the cup on No. 3, the other a 4-iron into 15 feet left of the flag on the 14th. He made birdie from just short of the par-5 18th for his 65.
All along, his target was Woods and that posted score of 12-under 132.
"I didn't want to back down," Els said. "I really was trying to get into this final group. I haven't been in this position for a while. I'd love to play as well or even better on the weekend. Maybe I'll have to."
It will be the first time Woods and Els have played in the final group at a major since the last round of the 2000 U.S. Open, although that was hardly a fair fight. Woods had a 10-shot lead, and wound up winning by 15.
But with two days remaining, the British Open was hardly a two-man race.
Chris DiMarco, whose mother died of a heart attack July 4, emerged from his slump with a 65 and was three shots behind at 9-under 135. Another shot back was two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, who had a 66.
Still, it all starts with Woods, who is trying to become the first back-to-back British Open champion since Tom Watson in 1982-83.
"Tiger at his best is hard to beat," said DiMarco, who lost a playoff to Woods in the Masters last year. "Tiger at a course he likes at his best is really hard to beat. All I can do is go out and try to play the best golf I can play. Anything can happen in 36 holes."
Masters champion Phil Mickelson will need a lot to happen. He never got anything going in his 71, leaving him eight shots behind. That still leaves him in better shape than Vijay Singh, who started bogey-double bogey on his way to a 76, missing the cut for the first time in 15 majors.
What might make Woods tough to catch is the caution with which he is playing Royal Liverpool.
Woods has hit only one driver in two rounds, opting for a 2-iron off most par 4s and a 3-wood on the par 5s with the ground so firm and the pot bunkers lurking on every fairway. That leaves him longer irons into the green, but that was no problem.
Nothing was more magical than his 4-iron in the second round, even from short range.
Woods' approach to the par-5 fifth hole went over the green and down the slope. He used a 4-iron to scoot the ball up the hill and down toward the flag, the ball stopped 6 inches behind the cup. Then came a 4-iron from 190 yards on the 12th hole that was pure, stopping 12 feet away. Woods missed the putt, but the swing stuck in his memory, and it was instant recall two holes later.
He again laid well back of the bunkers - Woods often spotted short-hitting Nick Faldo some 30 yards off the tee - and had 194 yards to the front of the 14th green.
"I was basically hitting the same shot, just trying to hold the ball in the wind," he said. "And I really hit it flush and held it nicely. I hit it on my line - I was looking at the left edge of the TV tower - and if the wind blows it over, that's fine."
He watched it as long as he could, then was startled to hear the cheers, and see the British fans raise their arms in unison. It was a muted cheer, nothing like the roar of Augusta National or Bethpage Black, partially because it happened so fast and no one was quite sure who hit it.
"It went in?" Woods asked caddie Steve Williams.
Indeed, it did. The gallery gave him a standing ovation when Woods was still 50 yards from the green.
Back in the fairway, Williams jokingly tried to make Woods carry the bag.
"We keep hitting the perfect 4-iron," Williams said he told him. "I'll give you the bag, and I'll just carry the 4-iron."
The only blemish for Woods was a bogey on the third hole when he found the rough, and failing to birdie the par-5 18th after pulling his 3-wood into the left rough, making him play well short of the green.
Els usually winds up on the short end against Woods. He has finished second to him seven times, far more than any other player, including a playoff loss in the Dubai Desert Classic earlier this year when Els hit into the water.
He knows about Woods' record as the leader, and that pushed him as he played the final nine late in the afternoon.
"I didn't want to get crazy aggressive, but I needed to keep the foot on the pedal," Els said. "As you know, and as I know, he's quite a good front-runner, so you need to reach out and try to hold him back. He's not going to back down from a lead."