Kuchar takes lead at PGA Championship, and Mickelson stays in the hunt

Matt Kuchar backed up his first-round 67 with a 69 on Friday.
John Biever/SI

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Matt Kuchar's 2009 FedEx Cup playoffs ended suddenly when he shot a final-round 75 at the BMW Championship to fail to reach the Tour Championship.

He had desperately wanted to make the field at East Lake, near his hometown of Atlanta, and was crushed. To get away from the game, Kuchar and his wife, Sybi, came to Kohler, Wis.

"That's the closest I've ever come to playing Whistling Straits," Kuchar told Golf Magazine earlier this year. "I saw a few holes, but we did other stuff like get spa treatments."

 

Perhaps the former Georgia Tech star sensed something good awaited him here. Not a year after his vacation, Kuchar backed up his first-round 67 with a 69 to get to eight under and take the lead at the fog-delayed PGA Championship at Whistling Straits on Friday.

"It's nice to be done," said Kuchar, who got just five and a half hours of sleep Thursday night before waking up to play the last four holes of his first round in one under par.

He made four birdies and just one bogey in his second round, including three straight birdies on 11, 12 and 13.

Nick Watney (68) was in second at seven under. Dustin Johnson (68), Rory McIlroy (68) and Zach Johnson (70) led a large group of players at five under.

Play was suspended at 7:27 p.m. with 78 players on the course. They are to resume their second round Saturday morning at 7 a.m. local time.

Tiger Woods was even through six holes of his second round, still one under for the tournament. His four-foot birdie putt spun around the cup and out on his last hole.

"It was tough out there," Woods said. "Blowing pretty good. Had to be very patient."

With fully half the field still trying to complete round two, many of them not even 27 holes into the tournament, the 36-hole cut was a long way from being established. Kuchar may not even be leading by the time all 156 players sign their second-round scorecards.

Phil Mickelson was among those on Kuchar's side of the draw who finished 36 holes. After stumbling to the end of his opening-round 73 with two bogeys Friday morning, he shot a three-under 69 in the second round and was two under for the tournament, six shots back.

"This is a penalizing golf course to not play from the fairway," Mickelson said. "And I certainly explored a lot of areas here. First 27 holes, for me to keep it around par was a feat, and I drove it better the last nine holes."

Mickelson's round included a double-bogey 6 on the 18th hole, his ninth of the day. He tried to reach the green in two from an awkward lie in the fairway bunker but topped his shot into the ditch in front of the green. He had to declare an unplayable lie.

He rebounded with a three-under 33 on the front nine.

Mickelson has been using a shorter, heavier driver to keep the ball lower and more in play at the Straits. For the most part, though, that hasn't happened. Mickelson has hit just 16 of 28 fairways and 21 of 36 greens in regulation. He's had to use all of his renowned short game.

"I obviously didn't have it all today," he said. "I wasn't putting myself in great positions off the tee, to where I could attack. Because of that, I had to be patient and try to just keep myself in position to where I could maybe make up the ground over the next two rounds."

It was a long Friday, with half the 156-man field having to return to finish their first round at 7 a.m. local time. Or so they thought. The second fog delay in as many days meant they didn't actually get to resume play until 9:40. By the time that delay was announced, they were already out of bed and on site.

"This morning wasn't pleasant," Kuchar said. "It wasn't pleasant to wake up at 4 this morning after getting back to the hotel at 9 last night, so I wasn't enjoying that part of it. But right now I'm glad that I've played the way that I did."

Kuchar has hit 23 of 28 fairways over two days, with his lone bogey in the second round coming at the 355-yard, par-4 sixth hole, where he hit his tee shot into a hazard he didn't know was there. He's taken a total of only 52 putts.

After nearly six hours of fog delays, Tiger Woods, one of those who completed his first round on Thursday (71), wound up with a 5:45 p.m. tee time Friday and had no chance of finishing.

Gentle rain began to fall about 4:15 and gave way to a strong wind that greeted the late starters. The region has been saturated in recent weeks, and with more rain forecast for Saturday, and fog wreaking havoc, a Monday finish seemed like a possibility.

"It definitely freshened for our last nine holes," McIlroy said of the breeze after making five birdies and just one bogey.

With its fog, pestilence (mosquitoes) and rain, this PGA has required patience, an attribute Kuchar, 32, has needed in spades.

An amateur sensation at the 1998 Masters (T21) and U.S. Open (T14), he won as a rookie pro at the 2002 Honda Classic. Alas, his game disappeared soon thereafter. He dipped to 182nd on the money list in '03, 139th in '04 and 159th in '05.

Just like that, he was off the Tour again.

Georgia Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler used to tell his players, "The one thing you can control is your attitude." Kuchar, who smiles on the course as much as anyone, took that to heart.

Back on the Nationwide tour in 2006, he began working with coach Chris O'Connell, and started his comeback. He finished 10th on the money list, earning his way back to the PGA Tour, and, he said Friday, "I've improved every year since then."

His second win came at the 2009 Turning Stone, where he beat Vaughn Taylor in a six-hole playoff, and with eight top 10s this season, Kuchar has risen to seventh in the Ryder Cup standings and would be a first-time participant.

As it happened, Kuchar's Thursday/Friday threesome included European captain Colin Montgomerie, and Kuchar took advantage by picking Montgomerie's brain about the event. Like many observers Thursday and Friday, Montgomerie couldn't help but be impressed with what he saw.

"He handled himself very well leading the tournament," said the 47-year-old Scotsman, who shot 79-83 and will miss the cut. "Holed a couple of great putts this morning, one on six and one on eight for par and for birdie. Very, very solid player. As solid a player as I have played with on the U.S. tour for a long time, and someone who will be a great asset for their Ryder Cup team, I'm sure."

That remains to be seen, like Kuchar's chances of becoming a major champion 48 hours from now. Then again, the way things are going at this start-and-stop PGA, it remains to be seen whether anyone will be crowned the winner Sunday night.

 

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