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The Leading Lites

Micheel moves atop a leaderboard rife with unfamiliar names but short on sub-par scores after two rounds at Oak Hill, which continues to treat many of game's best players harshly.

August 16, 2003|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The PGA Championship has produced its share of quirky stories through the years, but rarely one in which the first line of questions to the second-round leader could have legitimately been:

Who are you?

Where are you from?

How do you pronounce your name?

How did you get here?

On a day when a hardened Oak Hill Country Club course was chewing up and spitting out some of the game's best players, a 34-year-old pilot from Memphis, Tenn., named Shaun Micheel birdied four of his last five holes for a two-under 68 to -- yes, you could say stunningly -- seize a two-shot 36-hole lead over Billy Andrade and Mike Weir.

Micheel is three under overall at 137, with Andrade and Weir at 139 after shooting, respectively, 72 and 71.

Those three are the only players under par, as dry conditions turned Oak Hill into a bogey man and made this another anyone's-guess PGA.

At day's end, 30 players remained within seven shots of the lead.

Phil Mickelson shared the first-round lead but shot 75 and ended Friday at one-over 141, four shots behind Micheel.

Tiger Woods followed his opening-day 74 with a 72 and is tied for 39th place at 146.

Incredibly, Woods is only nine shots off the lead, and it would have been only seven had he not closed with bogeys on Nos. 16 and 18.

"I thought I hit good shots but didn't hit it close, and that's disappointing," Woods said.

How Micheel got invited to the media interview and Woods didn't is also an "anyone's guess" at this 85th PGA Championship. Micheel even had the nerve to make his last birdie on his final hole Friday, after television coverage had signed off for the day.

He is ranked 169th in the world and his ratio of lives saved to PGA tournaments won is holding firm at two to zero.

That's right, while Micheel is winless in 163 previous PGA starts, he did, in 1993, drag an elderly couple to safety after their car had plunged into a North Carolina lake.

Did we mention Micheel's wife is 24 weeks pregnant and he hates security at airports so much "that part of my life is torturous," and he became a pilot so he could spend more time with her?

Micheel has struggled to keep his tour card through the years and his successes have been minimal.

He once won the Singapore Open and, in 1999, a Nike Tour stop in Greensboro, N.C.

His biggest disappointment, he said, was blowing a final-round lead at last year's B.C. Open. Other than that, it's safe to say this is all new territory for Micheel.

Can he win?

"Sure," he said. "Why not? Someone's going to have to win. Maybe it's about time I do something."

Micheel has little to build on, this being only his third major appearance. He missed the cut at the 1999 U.S. Open and tied for 40th in 2001.

If he hangs on for another 36 holes, he'll become the most unlikely victor at a major since, well, Ben Curtis won last month's British Open.

It has been that kind of year.

For instance, Andrade's Wanamaker dream weekend remained alive, as he followed his first-round 67 with a 72.

Andrade, 39, was an alternate and made the tournament only after Larry Nelson withdrew because of a back injury.

Like Micheel, Andrade is trying to join John Daly in the pantheon of unlikely PGA winners.

Daly is the gold standard, having come from nowhere as the ninth alternate to win in 1991 at Crooked Stick.

As for Andrade, this whole week has been a little strange.

After his Thursday round, he returned to a hotel that was lacking electricity because of the power failure that affected much of the Northeast.

"They had flashlights for everybody," Andrade said. "... It was kind of cool."

Stranger things have happened at golf majors, haven't they?

"You know, as Ben Curtis proved at the British Open, anything's possible," Andrade said. "You know, I like my chances after 36 holes."

Meanwhile, back at range ranch, hard-luck Mickelson melted like an M&M in the sun with a 75 that included two double bogeys and the usual course-maintenance questions.

The problem for the man they call "Lefty" was that he kept hooking his shots into the wet stuff.

"When I miss it right, boy, that's trouble," Mickelson said.

Boy, was it ever. These continuing adventures with Phil prove why he remains golf's most exciting and enigmatic player.

On the par-five fourth hole, Mickelson's tee shot sprayed left and landed in matted-down rough next to a tree.

Instead of playing it safe, Mickelson pulled the driver from his bag as people in the gallery literally gasped.

Mickelson, though, smashed a tremendous, low draw shot that landed in the right front bunker, where he made it up-and-down.

Mickelson's bravado birdie on No. 4 put him at five-under and gave him a three-shot lead over Weir.

He had the momentum and the gallery on his side.

"This is the week!" screamed a fan.

"Let's go, Lefty," another yelled.

Change his strategy?

Well, never.

"I can't alter what got me to five under par," he said.

But then out came Mickelson's alter ego, as he made double bogeys on two of his next three holes to drop four strokes, to one under.

Mickelson's second shot out of the rough on the par-four fifth hole landed in the water left and short of the green.

"It was a gamble," he said of using a nine-iron instead of laying up. "No question, it was a gamble."

Mickelson had to take a drop and ultimately made double bogey.

"Oh, Philip, Philip, Philip," one lady in the grandstands lamented as if talking to a 10-year-old who never seems to learn.

After making par at No. 6, Mickelson hooked his tee shot right into another pond, had to take another drop, and made another double bogey.

He said Thursday the key to winning majors was not having to play "catch-up" on the weekend.

To win his first major, Mickelson now has to play catch-up.

The fact he has to catch someone named Micheel only adds to the intrigue.

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