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Short, sweet swings

Mickelson takes the lead while Tiger nearly misses the cut at TPC.

By BOB HARIG
Published May 12, 2007


PONTE VEDRA BEACH -- At first glance, this new and much discussed relationship with a swing instructor is working out quite nicely for Phil Mickelson. Coming off consecutive top-three finishes, he was leading through two rounds of the Players Championship on Friday.

Although the scores were good through 36 holes at TPC Sawgrass, Mickelson knows he isn't fooling anybody.

"I didn't play well enough to shoot a low score," said Mickelson, 36, who made a well-publicized move from longtime swing coach Rick Smith to Butch Harmon several weeks ago. "But I fought hard to keep it around even par.

"I didn't put myself in some great spots, so I relied on my short game to keep me in it. I'm pleased heading into the weekend to top the leaderboard and hopefully turn it around."

Mickelson's skills around the green and 13 one-putts were good for a score of par 72 and a one-shot lead over Australia's Nathan Green, his first ever at this stage of the Players Championship.

A better score could have given Mickelson a nice cushion heading into the weekend, but he wasn't complaining. Not when the struggles of others were taken into consideration.

Tiger Woods, winner of nine of his past 12 tournaments on the PGA Tour, was in danger of missing the cut for most of the day, but with birdie at the 16th hole -- just his second of the tournament -- he made it by one and trailed Mickelson by nine.

"I need to handle my own business first," Woods said. "I need to get myself into red numbers for the tournament at day's end and see where that stands. I just need to play better than I am playing right now."

And then there was Rory Sabbatini, the 31-year-old South African who shared the first-round lead with Mickelson after shooting 67. Sabbatini made triple-bogey 7 at the 17th hole and shot 40 on the back nine for 79. He finished at 2 over, seven back of Mickelson.

"It was just a frustrating day, and 17 kind of put the exclamation mark on it," Sabbatini said. "I missed a lot of good shots and had a lot of good opportunities for birdies, and I just watched them slide past the edge or lip out. ... It was just a constant case of frustration out there."

Mickelson finished at 139, 5 under par. Green, who lost in a playoff to Woods at last year's Buick Invitational, shot 69. Sean O'Hair 69, Peter Lonard (72), Carl Pettersson (71) and Rod Pampling (71) were at 141.

Although he led, Mickelson needed some magic. He hit just six of 14 fairways after hitting only five in Round 1. Worse, he hit just six of 18 greens in regulation.

But he needed just 23 putts and is an amazing 33-for-33 on putts inside 10 feet for the tournament. A 6-iron to 7 feet at the par-5 16th hole set up an eagle that put Mickelson in the lead.

The move to Harmon after the Masters was one of golf's biggest stories. Harmon worked with Woods for more than 10 years, helping him become the game's best before Woods switched to instructor Hank Haney. Harmon has worked with many players, including Greg Norman and Adam Scott.

Mickelson is coy when discussing what he is working on, but it's no secret he has needed to get his driver straightened out. A stray tee shot on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open last year cost him the tournament. And he is still struggling to get the ball in play.

"My misses (Friday) were a lot bigger than they were the first day," he said. "(Thursday) I played a lot of great shots and played aggressively. (Friday) I played some very poor shots off the tee and didn't give myself many chances to make birdie. I'll have to improve on that. I don't feel like it's far off."

Bob Harig can be reached at harig@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8806.

More misery on 17
The par-3 island hole was not nearly as difficult as the first round, but it still gave several players fits:
1 Ball hit into the water by Tom Lehman, the first of his career.
2 Balls hit into the water by first-round co-leader Rory Sabbatini.
3.488 Average, the toughest on the course through two rounds.
7 A quadruple bogey for Sabbatini.
21 Balls hit into the water by 19 players Friday.
50 Balls hit into the water by 46 players Thursday.
71 The two-day total of balls in the water, breaking the mark of 67 set in four rounds in 2005.