Tiger Woods returned to familiar territory in typically gritty fashion at the US Masters on Friday, surging ominously into contention with two back-nine birdies in the second round at Augusta National.
Looking composed at one of his favourite venues and showing no hint of rust in his first tournament for nearly five months, the world number one ground out a two-under-par 70 to end a difficult day of scoring just two shots off the lead.
Engaging with the Augusta fans at every opportunity in glorious spring sunshine, Woods rolled in a 20-foot putt at the 13th before sinking a 12-footer at the 15th on the way to a six-under total of 138.
The four-times champion, whose troubled private life appears to have had no effect on his golf, will go into Saturday's third round headed only by British pacesetters Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood.
Poulter fired a five-birdie 68, his only blemish coming at the last where he missed a seven-foot par putt, while Westwood briefly got to 10-under before losing momentum over the closing stretch for a 69.
"It feels good to be back and in contention," Woods told reporters after finishing level with playing partner KJ Choi of South Korea (71) and Americans Phil Mickelson (71), Anthony Kim (70) and Ricky Barnes (70).
"I usually put myself in contention most years here and this year I'm right there. We've got 36 more holes and I'm sure the golf course, they are not going to make it easy for us."
Poulter, who won his first PGA Tour title at the elite WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February, was delighted to share the 36-hole lead in the year's opening major.
"This is a nice position to be in and obviously winning a couple of months back is a huge factor in playing well this week," said the English world number seven, who, like Westwood, had never previously led after a major round.
"I'm in a position now where I can go out and be aggressive on the golf course. But it's only Friday so I don't want to get carried away."
Westwood, winner of last year's Dubai World Championship and the European order of merit, believes his time has come after a couple of close calls in majors during 2008 and 2009.
"It's the only thing really missing in my career," said the world number four, whose roller-coaster round included an eagle at the second and a double-bogey at the tricky 14th.
"I've won everywhere around the world and money lists and here in the States. I know I've got the game and I know I've got the temperament. It's just going that one step further and finishing it off.
Woods, again watched by huge galleries on his highly anticipated return to competition, offset a birdie at the second with a bogey at the par-three fourth to reach the turn in level-par 36.
Wearing a green shirt, black sweater and black trousers, the American frequently tipped his cap to acknowledge the cheers from the crowd as he clawed his way into contention.
Unusually, he wore sunglasses in between every shot due to the glare and high pollen count.
"The pollen is just killing my eyes," he said. "I've been sneezing and hacking all week so I'm trying to keep it out of my eyes the best I can."
Woods was again in crowd-pleasing mode, having promised on Monday to give more respect to the game and the fans following startling revelations about his extra-marital affairs at the end of last year.
After teeing off at the par-three sixth he spotted a young boy wearing a baseball cap with 'TW' emblazoned on the front and he put a huge grin on the youngster's face by giving him a friendly hand slap as he walked by.
Having negotiated the first 12 holes in even par, he surged up the leaderboard amid roars of 'Go Tiger' with his birdies at 13 and 15, the first of them prompting him to raise his putter skywards in celebration.
Woods, who was watched for the second day in a row by his Thai mother Kultida but not his Swedish wife, is bidding to become the first player to launch his season with a major victory since Ben Hogan clinched the 1953 Masters.
Tricky pin positions, quickening greens and Augusta's notorious swirling winds posed continual problems for the field in the second round. The day's average score of 74.512 was almost 1.5 shots higher than Thursday.
While 16 players broke 70 in the opening round, that number dropped to just three on Friday when the cut fell at three-over 147. Former major winners Padraig Harrington and Stewart Cink were among those missing out.