By Mark Lamport-Stokes
THOUSAND OAKS, California (Reuters) - Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell continued his love affair with Sherwood Country Club as he charged into a commanding three-shot lead after Friday's second round of the World Challenge.
Winner here in 2010 and runner-up in 2009, McDowell fired a superb six-under-par 66 in rain-softened conditions to take control of the elite 18-player event hosted by Tiger Woods.
The 33-year-old Northern Irishman made a fast start with three consecutive birdies on a receptive layout and finished with four more in the last nine holes to post a nine-under total of 135.
"A good day's work," said McDowell, who has not won anywhere since his 2010 World Challenge victory. "The golf course is obviously very receptive ... so it's an opportunity to be very aggressive coming into these pins.
"And it's nice to come back to a golf course which has got some good memories for me. It's just been a golf course that's always fit my eye."
Jim Furyk, World Challenge winner in 2009, carded a 69 to sit three strokes off the pace with fellow Americans Bo Van Pelt (68) and Keegan Bradley (69).
Woods, the defending champion who has won the tournament a record five times, was a further shot back at five under after carding a five-birdie 69.
"Certainly I hit the ball a lot better than I did yesterday and made a couple more putts," said Woods, who moved into a four-way tie for the lead on the back nine before slipping back with a bogey at the 15th.
"I felt a lot better today with my swing overall. I just had to come out here and trust it and when I did I got into a nice little run there. I just need to do that all 36 holes on the weekend."
McDowell, however, took charge of the invitational event on a mainly overcast day with intermittent drizzle after starting the second round two strokes behind overnight leader Nick Watney.
He covered the front nine in two-under 34 with his only bogey coming at the par-four seventh, and picked up four more shots with a flawless display on the hillier homeward nine.
McDowell was well aware, though, that any of his closest challengers were capable of shooting a low score on a Sherwood layout softened by rain.
"I've certainly got my small little cushion going into the weekend, but all I can do is concentrate on my game," he said. "I believe someone will go low this weekend at some point.
"Certainly seven, eight, nine under par is not out of the question on this golf course. There are a lot of birdie chances on this golf course.
"You really just gotta stay patient and wait for your opportunities to come along," said the Northern Irishman who won his first major title in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
McDowell would dearly love to end his 2012 campaign with a victory, having not triumphed anywhere since he beat Woods in a playoff to clinch the 2010 World Challenge.
"It would mean a lot to me to win this weekend, but I've got 36 holes of difficult golf against some great players to come," he said. "It's not like beating 156 guys, but there's 18 pretty good players here.
"This event has always got good memories for me. Like I say, I have a very relaxed approach to this week generally."
Watney, two strokes ahead of the field overnight after opening with a 67, bogeyed two of the last three holes for a 73 to lie five shots off the pace.
"Definitely a little sloppy today, and just a terrible way to finish," he said. "But we're only halfway through so we'll see if we can kind of make a charge at those guys in the morning."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)