Lefty stays out of trouble and takes the lead

May 12, 2007

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — On a day when so many crucial shots found the water, Phil Mickelson wasn’t sure whether his glass was half-empty or half-full at The Players Championship.

Based on where he hit some of his tee shots Friday, he was thrilled to be in the lead.

Considering that he twice hit the flag, nearly holed out from the fairway and hit a 6-iron on the par-5 16th hole that caught the perfect bounce and stopped 6 feet away for eagle, he was disappointed his one-shot lead wasn’t greater.

“Had I played well, this is a day I could have shot 3 or 4 under and pulled away,” Mickelson said after an even-par 72 that put him one shot ahead of Nathan Green of Australia. “A lot of guys shot under par. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them. But by the same token, I didn’t do well enough to shoot even par. So I’ll take it.”

His logic might be confusing, but one thing was clear.

The best way to stay ahead on the TPC Sawgrass was to stay dry, even in an afternoon of steamy sunshine.

For all the thrills, two simple pars at the end of his round kept him atop the leaderboard at The Players for the first time going into the weekend. He found dry land on the island green at the par-3 17th, then saved par from the rough on the 18th to finish at 5-under 139.

Mickelson was among seven players who had at least a share of the lead Friday.

Peter Lonard took two double bogeys on his back nine, Carl Petterson finished bogey-bogey and Sean O’Hair three-putted the 18th to lose costly shots, leaving them two shots behind and chasing Mickelson.

Tiger Woods tried to fight back, but he did a better job with his words than his clubs.

Woods finally picked up a birdie on his second hole, but he spent most of the sunny afternoon wondering if he would make the cut. He wasn’t in the clear until a two-putt birdie on the 16th hole, dry land on the 17th and another par save for a 73, leaving him at 4-over 148 to make it by one stroke.

His best shot was directed at Rory Sabbatini, who said Thursday that the world’s No. 1 player looked “as beatable as ever” and that he likes the “new Tiger” who struggles with his swing.

“If I remember the quote correctly, he said he likes the new Tiger,” Woods said. “I figure I’ve won nine of 12 (PGA Tour events), and I’ve won three times this year – the same amount he’s won in his career. So, I like the new Tiger, as well.”

Sabbatini didn’t understand all the fuss.

“I never intended it as a dig at Tiger. I basically stated that I want to compete against him,” he said. “He is the No. 1 player in the world, and I think I have the ability to get to No. 1 in the world, and that’s where I want to contend.”

Both of them have their work cut out.

Sabbatini looked like a day-old Tiger by failing to make a birdie. He still was in the mix until he stepped to the 17th tee and deposited two balls in the water – one from the drop area – on his way to a quadruple-bogey 7 and a 79 that left him seven shots out of the lead.

Green was one of the few players who finished strong, dropping only one shot in swirling wind for a 69 to finish at 140 and get into the final group with Mickelson on Saturday.

Lonard (72), O’Hair (69), Petterson (71) and Rod Pampling (71) were at 141.

Mickelson has hit only 11 fairways the first two rounds – only Retief Goosen with eight has hit fewer – but he is getting by with a solid short game that the Stadium Course allows because of tightly mown collection areas around the green, his specialty.

He dropped out of the lead with bogeys on the seventh and eighth hole, then hit the flag with a wedge on the par-5 ninth, getting a break when the ball only caromed 6 feet away to set up birdie. Mickelson also hit the flag on the 14th hole, another good break, as the ball likely was headed through the green.

But there was no luck involved on the par-5 16th.

After a perfectly played drive, he took 6-iron from 208 yards and caught the slope on the first bounce, which fed the ball to 6 feet for an eagle putt that put him back in the lead.

“Just enough draw to catch that swale,” Lefty said.

The island green didn’t claim nearly as many victims in the second round – only 21 on Friday, making it 71 for the week to break the tournament record with two rounds left. Even so, the penalty was just as stiff.

Former Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman holed out for eagle from 163 yards on the 15th hole to get within two shots of the lead. Two holes later, his perfect record on the meanest par 3 at Sawgrass was over. Having never found the water in 55 previous attempts, this one went over the back, down the ramp and into the lake. He played a brilliant pitch up the grassy walkway for bogey.

Lehman had a 73 and was in the group at 1-under 143 that included Jim Furyk (72) and Rocco Mediate (71).

Furyk also struggled on his closing holes and hit the water, but his was on the front nine. He was one shot out of the lead until pulling his approach so badly on No. 7 that it hit off the bank and into water, leading to a double bogey.

“No golf professional should ever hit it in that body of water,” Furyk said.

He also took bogey on the par-3 eighth by hitting out to the right, and wound up with a 72, still in the hunt. And that’s they way he looked at his position, no matter how his round ended.

“I’m disappointed, but I’ve done a lot right,” Furyk said. “That’s the mental battle. If I would have made a bogey and a double bogey early today and played the rest of the way around and shot even par, everyone would have been congratulating me for playing a good round here. I made those mistakes at the end, and everyone kind of expects me to jump off a bridge.”

Woods didn’t find much to like about his game. He didn’t hit the ball well and still struggled on the greens. His only two birdies of the round came on par 5s.

“I just need to shoot some good rounds,” Woods said. “I just can’t afford to make the mistakes I’ve made. For 36 holes, I’ve only made two birdies. Not very good.”

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