Another dizzying display of birdies over the helpless Riviera Country Club ended with Ernie Els and Mark O’Meara ahead by three strokes halfway through the PGA Championship.
Don’t let it fool you. This is a course where strokes can be made up quickly. And a slew of big names hanging close are just one 65 away from jumping to the top of the leaderboard.
Three strokes is not even close to a big lead here.
Els shot a 65 on Friday and O’Meara turned in a 67 as they finished at 11-under-par 131, tying the 36-hole record for the PGA Championship on a day in which 58 players broke par, the most ever in the second round of this tournament.
With the greens and fairways still so soft the players could stick the ball wherever it landed, par remained only a vague reference point, a minimum suggestion rather than a standard of excellence.
The way the course has yielded low scores, someone back in the pack could easily leap up the leaderboard.
Justin Leonard was three strokes behind the co-leaders at 134, while knotted at 135 were Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie, Steve Elkington, Brian Claar and Jeff Maggert.
Seven more players, including Lee Janzen and first-round leader Michael Bradley, were at 136, putting 13 players within five strokes of the lead.
Unless the greens dry out dramatically - and it hasn’t been that hot - there seems to be nothing short of making the cups smaller that could be done to make Riviera play more difficult. Nothing except the intensity of the weekend rounds of a major championship.
“Now we are all on the same firm greens,” Norman said, referring to the fact that all of the leaders will play the last two rounds paired together in the afternoon. “We’re all on the same starting block. Now let’s see what happens over the next 36 holes,” said Norman, who got to 7-under-par with a 45-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to give him a 69.
Over the first 36 holes, Riviera put up little resistance. The 131 by Els and O’Meara tied the PGA Championship mark set by Hal Sutton here in 1983 and Vijay Singh at Inverness in 1993.
“You could really fly the ball at the flags,” Els said. “But the weekend is where everything is going to start happening. On the weekend you got to start watching the other guys.”
Among those missing the cut of even-par 142 for the weekend rounds were British Open champion John Daly and U.S. Open winner Corey Pavin, who has won the last two Nissan Opens on this course.
Els started his round by knocking his 4-iron second shot on the 503-yard, par-5 first hole to 8 feet and rolling it in for an eagle. He gave that stroke back with a bogey on the fifth hole, but then dominated the back nine.
Four of his five birdie putts on the back side were from 8 feet or less as he cruised to an effortless 31.
O’Meara got his share of the lead with two birdies on the last three holes hours after Els had finished his round. He rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 16 and then closed out his round with a 14-footer on the difficult 18th hole.
“I just wanted to shoot something in the red today,” O’Meara said. “My goal wasn’t to catch Ernie. There’s still a lot of jockeying going on. A lot of the guys below us are still in contention.”
Bradley, the 29-year-old unknown whose 63 in Thursday’s first round matched the lowest score ever in a major championship, almost fell out of contention early, making consecutive double bogeys on No. 4 and 5, but he played the rest of the way in at 1-under.
“I was 3-over after five holes, and that was with a birdie,” Bradley said. “I could have easily shot an 80. I’m a little proud of myself.”
Janzen also showed great resolve on Friday. He started the day at 5-under and was 6-under by the time he got to No. 5. But Janzen also hit his drive out of bounds. He played his provisional to the fairway, knocked his approach to 5 feet and saved a bogey with a one-putt.
Then he stepped up on the 175-yard sixth hole and knocked a 7-iron in for a hole-in-one.
The calm, cool Els was a far cry from the Els who missed the cut in an attempt to defend his U.S. Open title this June.
“I was very tense. I didn’t let myself go,” he said. “I was trying too hard. I felt like I had to relax a little more and start enjoying myself.”
So he went home to South Africa for a couple of weeks and watched the world rugby championships. Since then he was 11th in the British Open and third last week in the Buick Open.
“I felt like my game was really coming back,” Els said. “I felt like my concentration was coming back.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LEADERBOARD Scores from the second round of the $2 million PGA Championship: Ernie Els 66-65-131 Mark O’Meara 64-67-131 Justin Leonard 68-66-134
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