AUGUSTA, Ga. - Anybody else, and the agent would have sneaked a phone call to the airport to gas up the private jet and send somebody to collect the bags. That is how badly Tiger Woods was playing yesterday, how wildly.

Yet, still, he lingers.

He sprayed the ball around Augusta National in the second round of the Masters as if it were being shot from a dropped fire hose, unpredictably dancing under the pressure. Several tee shots found the pine forests - and, on the ninth hole, Woods was forced to play a shot lefthanded from against a tree. Twice on Amen Corner, he dunked balls into the water. Nobody knew where the next shot was headed, including him.

Yet, still, he hovers.

After somehow Band-Aiding his way around the course and shooting 74 yesterday, Woods is five shots out of the lead at 3-over par. He is tied for 16th on the "who's he?" leaderboard of all time, which means that he is still right there. He knows it and everybody ahead of him knows it. He is confident now after his salvage job in the second round and everybody in the place must know that, too.

When asked about the people ahead of him, Woods spoke the absolute truth when he said: "They're not going anywhere, not under these conditions. They're not going to go low here."

They're not going anywhere . . .

Golf's golden child has always been about the brass.

Woods has always been one of those guys who, despite outlandish talent, has taken the most pride in his ability to stick with it through the inevitable adversity. He uses the terms "grinder" and "grinding it out" all the time, and it is no accident. It obviously is the way he likes to think of himself.

Tiger Woods makes chicken salad. It is what he always has done the best of all, better than anyone in his game. It is what he did yesterday, another dry, breezy day when Augusta National was at its most unforgiving.

As Woods said: "I turned, basically, a 90 into a 74 today, which was nice. Yesterday, I threw away a good round [with two bogeys at the end]. Today, I salvaged a bad one. So I kept myself right there in the ballgame, five shots back with the weather coming on the weekend. I'm right there in the ballgame."

Amen Corner - the 11th, 12th and 13th holes here - should have been his undoing. After careening his way around the first 10 holes with four bogeys and two birdies, he stepped up to No. 11 and promptly hit another drive into the trees. Result: bogey.

Then, at the famous par-3 12th, Woods hit a 9-iron that he said he liked, but the wind caught it and the ball ended up sliding back down the bank and into Rae's Creek. After taking a penalty stroke, he pitched to about 20 feet from the hole.

Twenty feet, downhill, through the shadows, to save bogey. And Woods banged it in. It was the personification of audacity.

"The crucial one was on 12," he said, looking back. "The whole idea is never to make a [double-bogey] around this place. If you don't make doubles, you don't make three-putts here, usually you're going to be in contention to win the tournament. That was a nice putt to make."

Next, the 13th tee. It is the most isolated part of the course, right at the edge of the property, with no spectators anywhere nearby. As Woods found himself well into the downswing on his tee shot, he abruptly stopped when a bird apparently flew close to his head.

"I'm still trying to figure that out," he said. "A bird flew right over me. I stopped it somehow. I felt like I broke my back, my wrist, my neck, my legs, hip. I don't know how those baseball players do it, those check swings . . . I felt like the shaft was going to snap."

Does it still hurt?

"Hell, no, man. I'm not that old yet," he said.

On the second shot on the 13th, Woods tried to reach the green and hit a terrible ball that sailed right, and right into a tributary to Rae's Creek that guards the front of the green. A drop, a pitch, a putt and a par followed. Easy. Amen.

"So, yeah, that was fun," Woods said.

Woods was 5-over at that point. Birdies on the 15th and 17th brought him back and left him believing again in the possibilities. Two late bogeys on Thursday had killed his round and his mood. This revived him, even as he acknowledged how you just cannot play aggressively this week.

"Here?" he asked. "On this golf course? Not under these conditions, no. You just go ahead and plod along and try to put the ball in the right spot if you can. If you can't, somehow just don't have any wrecks out there.

"With the conditions coming up here on the weekend, we're all going to have to grind. Whether you're a rookie or not, or a vet, it doesn't matter - you're going to have your hands full on this weekend. It usually rains here, and you've got softer conditions and you can make a couple of birdies, but not here. Birdies are very hard to come by right now."

As are obvious names near the top of the leaderboard. Which means this: That while Woods' history is as a front-runner in the majors, this year might be setting up differently. *

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