Padraig Harrington holed an 18 footer at the last to save a miraculous par four and card a level par 70 in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. But the real Houdini stuff came from Tiger Woods who barely hit a fairway yet still had just 20 putts through 16 holes en route to a two under par 68 that left him just two shots off the lead. What a contrast from the CA Championship at Doral, where he holed virtually nothing.

Cheered to the echo on the first tee, it might have been the final group at the Masters. And Woods certainly delivered a message of intent just two weeks before the season's first major.

Asked how he did it, Woods said: "Well, I just scored. I didn't get anything out of my rounds down there in Doral ... but I got the maximum out of the round today. I held it together with some good up-and-downs toward the end of the front nine, on the back nine I started hitting it better and made some putts.

"I didn't hit the ball particularly well today. Just kind of held it together, but that's a good thing. It's a good sign. Something that I haven't done yet."

When it was suggested to him that he had to be pleased with a sub-par round on a tough course, Woods agreed.

"No doubt. No doubt. It is playing difficult. The greens have a little bit of spring coming into them and you have to be patient. The rough is deeper than we have seen in the past so you have to put the ball on the fairway and somehow put the ball on the green."

Both players were wayward off the tee - especially Woods, who hit just six fairways. But the world number one managed eight single putts in a row from the eighth, four of them for birdies, before a bogey at the par-three 17th took some of the gloss off a tremendous exhibition of scoring.

Harrington is a rarity in that he has a better scoring average than Woods when they are paired together. But that figure took a knock in Orlando as Woods saved par after par before hitting a purple patch in the middle of the back nine with four birdies in a row from the 11th sending him home in 32 compared to 36 by the Dubliner.

Asked about playing with the Dubliner for the first time since he lost to him in a play-off for the 2006 Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in Japan, Woods said: "Yeah, I haven't played with Paddy in a while, so it's been a while. We were talking out there, Stevie and I, about his routine has changed. It's certainly much quicker than it has been in the past.

"I mean, whatever he's doing is working. His work ethic is second to none out here. He really works hard. It was an amount of time before he had some success in major championships, and lo and behold, he's got three."

Harrington also noticed plenty about Woods.

"He's not hitting the ball as hard as he used to, that's for sure," Harrington said. "He looks to be concentrating more on his rhythm. . . not really putting himself under too much pressure."

Ironically for a player who went long all day, Harrington came up short in the water hazard at the 18th but dropped on the fringe and holed his third from 18 feet for par.

Holing from off the green had been Woods preserve until that point. The American set the tone for the day when he pushed his tee shot right of the bunkers at the first before chipping in spectacularly from 100 feet for birdie.

Harrington almost followed him in after overshooting the green but birdied the par-three second from seven feet to get back on terms. He handed that shot back with a clumsy three putt at the fifth - missing his Achilles Heel, an right to lefter from four feet -  but then drained a 16 footer at the eighth to turn two shots ahead of Woods, who drove into the lake at the seventh to run up a double bogey seven.

However, Woods' scoring revival began at the eighth, where he got up and down for par from 30 yards for the first of eight single putts in a row.

When Harrington missed a green, he appeared to miss it long most of the time and a birdie at the par-five 12th was erased by bogeys at the 11th and 15th.

He was also struggling with what appeared to be an allergy and spent a lot of time blowing his nose and rubbing his right eye.

"I told myself for 12 holes, 'Don't touch it, don't touch it, don't touch it,' " Harrington said. "It got a lot better after I started poking it."

While all this was going on, the third member of the group, Mark Wilson, outscored both Harrington and Woods with a bogey-free, three-under par 67 that left him just two strokes adrift of leader and sponsor's invitee Jason Gore, who fired a five under par 65.

Starting on the back nine, Gore birdied three of his last four holes to lead by a shot from Tim Herron and tournament alternate Jeff Overton.

Graeme McDowell had a roller-coaster, one-over par 71 that featured four birdies and five bogeys.

While the Ulsterman drove the ball well,  his scrambling was poor and he will be looking for something better on Friday as he bids for a top-ten finish that would give him a pre-Masters workout in next week's Shell Houston Open. 

McDowell's request for a sponsor's invitation for Houston came too late and he will be hoping for another three good rounds, at least, to go to Augusta with high hopes of making an impression.