ATLANTA -- David Duval put to rest any questions about his back, his game and his desire.
After scrambling for an unlikely birdie late in the second round and cleaning up a 2-under 68, Duval had a one-stroke lead in the Tour Championship. Not long after he walked off the course, he was told he would play in the final pairing Saturday with Tiger Woods.
"Good," Duval said. "It should be a good day. I hope he gets used to hitting first."
He was kidding -- sort of.
Duval knows he can't hit the ball farther than Woods and that he probably will be the first to hit his approach shots into the green. But he also believes he has plenty of game to challenge the No. 1 player in the world.
"He's the standard right now by which you're comparing your golf," Duval said. "I want to go out and play good golf and show him I can play, too."
Duval was at 7-under 133 after two trips around East Lake Golf Club, one stroke ahead of Woods and Chris Perry.
Woods got off to a slow start once again, 2 over after the first six holes, but played inspired golf the rest of the way. He made a 20-foot eagle putt on the 15th, and answered a bogey with a 10-foot birdie on the 17th.
It all added up to a 66, his 41st consecutive round at par or better on the PGA Tour, and very much within range of Duval.
"I'm right back in the tournament," said Woods, who is trying to join Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead as the only players to win at least 10 times on tour in one season.
Perry, who last week moved into 30th on the money list to qualify for the Tour Championship, was tied for the lead until making a bogey from the bunker on the 18th. That put Woods and Duval in the last pairing.
And just like that, a $5 million tournament with no season-ending awards on the line suddenly got some excitement.
Woods and Duval are the only players who have been ranked No. 1 in the world over the last three years. They have played together only five times in their careers, with Woods shooting a lower score on four of those occasions.
But Saturday will be only the second time they have been paired in the final group.
The first time came at St. Andrews, when Woods took a six-stroke lead into the final round and became the youngest player, at 24, to complete the Grand Slam.
Duval was struggling that week with a bad back, barely able to bend over to stick a tee in the ground. He eventually was forced out of golf for 10 weeks.
"The only regret I have about that week is something I can't change," he said.. "I wish I could have played without a back injury. I dare say that had I not been injured ... things might have been different."
But after winning the Buick Challenge in his first tournament back, and playing close to the form that made him No. 1 for four months in 1999, Duval relished the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with Woods.
"I think I have a great shot this week," he said.
Woods and Duval have developed a good relationship off the course. Woods selected Duval as his partner for the World Cup next month in Argentina.
Duval cautioned, however, that beating Woods does not guarantee victory at East Lake. Just last week, Steve Flesch was paired with Woods for the last two rounds at Disney, kept his one-stroke margin and ended up finishing second to Duffy Waldorf.
"I don't come here thinking that I have to just beat Tiger," he said. "If you get caught up competing against one player, you're not going to win golf tournaments that you maybe should."
Indeed, a day of bad lies and bizarre shots resulted in four changes on the leaderboard and 10 players within four shots of the lead when the second round was over.
Masters champion Vijay Singh and Paul Azinger each had a 66 and were at 135. Another stroke back was David Toms (67), Phil Mickelson (69) and Ernie Els (72).
Els began the day with a one-stroke lead and failed to make a single birdie.
"Sometimes, it's hard when you go for a great score to go out there and find it again," said Els, who was eight strokes worse than his opening round.
Mickelson was at 7-under and leading the tournament until his approach to the 16th found the deep rough framing a bunker. He tried a flop shot, but his sand wedge slid under the ball and moved only far enough to trickle into the bunker. He wound up with a double bogey.
Duval appeared to be headed to a similar fate on the par-5 15th when his ball was caked with mud after landing in the soft fairway. His approach squirted 50 yards to the right through the trees, and a bump-and-run to the green kicked into a bunker.
No problem. He holed the shot for birdie, then made a nice up-and-down to save bogey after hitting into the slope of the fairway bunker on No. 17.
"I'm in a great spot," Duval said. "I would be very pleased to continue to play like I have the first two days. If I do, I think I'll have a real nice chance of winning the golf tournament."
Woods might still have a say in that.
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