TULSA, Okla. — They could hear him coming simply by following the cheers that charted every birdie along the back nine. The sweat-soaked spectators rose to their feet when Tiger Woods climbed onto the 18th green with history waiting at a major.
They sensed something special at Southern Hills, even if it was only Friday.
Fifteen feet from the lowest round ever at a major, Woods raised his putter when the ball began to dip inside the left edge of the cup, then let the club fall from his hands as the ball spun around the cup and out the other side.
“Started diving,” Woods said. “Evidently didn’t want to go in.”
Everything else went his way at the PGA Championship.
Woods settled for a record-tying 63 and found equal satisfaction in something he didn’t have to share — the lead at a major for the first time this year. He was at 6-under 134 and two shots clear of Scott Verplank (66), with omens on his side.
Woods is 7-0 when leading a major after 36 holes, and Southern Hills has a history of guys winning from out front. All six major champions on this course were atop the leaderboard going into the weekend.
“I had a good seat for it,” said former PGA champion Bob Tway, who had a 72 and played with Woods. “That’s why he’s the best. He went out there and made it look pretty simple. So we got drilled by nine today. Next time he’ll have to give me a few shots.”
Even more daunting is when Woods spots the field any kind of lead.
“You can’t think or believe that it’s over,” Ernie Els said after a 68 left him six shots behind. “I want to believe it’s not. I’ve got two rounds left. We all know he’s No. 1 and he’s on form. That’s kind of dangerous. But I’m playing well myself.”
Former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy was matching Woods birdie-for-birdie on the back nine until he closed with two bogeys for a 68 that left him at 3-under 137 with Stephen Ames (69).
John Daly put on a different show, whipping out driver and lumbering through the rough and the trees to find it. He hit enough good shots to salvage a 73 that left him six shots behind and asking an important question.
“How do you cool Tiger off?” Daly said.
It was the 23rd round of 63 in the majors, but only four others have gone on to win — Johnny Miller in the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, Jack Nicklaus in the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, Greg Norman in the 1986 British Open at Turnberry, and Raymond Floyd in the 1982 PGA Championship at Southern Hills.
Woods will be in the final group today with Verplank, whose bogey-free round fired up a gallery that has been cheering him since he won the U.S. Amateur title and a PGA Tour event while at Oklahoma State. It looked like it would be enough to give the 43-year-old his first lead in a major championship.
Then Woods teed off, hit 8-iron to 6 feet for birdie, and began a swift and stunning charge up the leaderboard.
Coming off his lone bogey at No. 7 when he caught an awkward stance in the bunker, Woods stuffed his approach into 2 feet on the ninth and 3 feet on the 10th to get within one shot of the lead.
And while his putt for 62 rimmed out, his biggest putt of the second round might have been for par.
Woods found another bunker at No. 12 and blasted out some 30 feet by the pin. He started walking to the side when his par putt broke toward the cup and pumped his fist when it curled in the right side.
“The putt on 12 was huge to keep the round going,” Woods said.
Then came a charge into the lead and into the record books. He got up-and-down from a bunker at the par-5 13th for birdie, chipped in from 15 feet from just behind the green at No. 14 and holed a 30-foot birdie putt on the 15th.
Needing one more birdie over the final three holes, Woods gave himself three good chances, especially on 18.
And he knew what was riding on the last putt.
“It would have been a nice little record to have,” Woods said. “A 62½ is all right.”
The immediate emotion didn’t belong to someone who had shot 63 for a two-shot lead in a major, putting him in good position to avoid getting shut out in the Grand Slam events for only the fourth time in his career.
“Mad,” Woods said. “I hit a good putt and thought I made it. It would’ve been nice to have gotten a record and a three-shot lead going into the weekend. The good thing is, I hit a good putt. That’s the important point.”
Thomas Bjorn was the last player to shoot 63 in a major, in the third round at the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol. Woods might not have predicted a record-tying round, but even after opening with a 71, he said he hit the ball far better than he scored. This time, he made a few putts — only 24 in the second round.
“I was just trying to get myself back in this tournament,” Woods said. “And lo and behold, here I am.”
The company is getting smaller.
Only eight players remained under par, with Woods and Ogilvy the only ones in that group who have won a major.
Woody Austin (70) was at 138, while John Senden (70), Niclas Fasth (68) and Pat Perez (69) were another shot back. Daly joined Els in the large group at 140.
Ogilvy was among those who refused to concede the PGA Championship only halfway through.
“He does pretty good when he leads for two rounds and even better when he leads for three rounds,” Ogilvy said. “So I guess that is kind of ominous. But at some point, he’s not going to win.”
For some, victory was simply getting a chance to play two more rounds.
Chad Campbell ran off four straight birdies on his back nine for a 68, while Steve Stricker birdied his last hole for a 68, and both made the cut on the number at 5-over 145. Colin Montgomerie also made the cut at 145, the first time he will play the weekend in a major since he took double bogey on the final hole at Winged Foot and finished second in the U.S. Open last year.
Also making the cut with no room to spare was Sergio Garcia, who suffered through a swift turn of fate. He was one shot out of the lead until taking three shots to get out of a bunker on No. 11, then finished off a 41 on the back to post a 75.