By Len Shapiro
Ridiculous was how Australian Rod Pampling described the blast furnace conditions during the stifling second round at the AT&T National at Congressional Friday. And he actually tied for the days second lowest score, a four-under 67 that left him only three shots out of the lead.
Under searing sun, in temperatures that reached 100 degrees at 4 p.m., on a fast and firm course set up as challenging as any U.S. Open, it was late-finishing Hunter Mahan who cooly carved out an afternoon round of six-under 65 and 36-hole total of seven-under 135. He took a two-shot lead over three playersRobert Garrigus, also with a 67, Brenden De Jong (69) and Jimmy Walker (69), all at five-under 137.
Mahan, a two-time winner this season ranked No. 10 in the world, is no stranger to going low at Congressional. In the final round of the 2009 AT&T, he posted a 62 but eventually lost by a shot that year to champion Tiger Woods.
I hit a lot of good shots out there, made it easy on myself, Mahan said after his Friday round. Its a pretty punishing golf coursebut I put myself in great spots to make putts. I was able to bear down and stay focusedThis is a tough place to play.
On this suffocating afternoon, Mahan had five birdies and a bogey on his front nine, then took the outright lead when he drained an eight-foot putt at the 579-yard 16th hole. At the courses signature 500-yard 18th, he finished with a flourish, bombing out a 350-yard drive, dropping his second shot sand wedge to within 12 feet of the cup and making the birdie putt.
It can be dangerous out there, Mahan said of the heat. If you dont take care of yourself its going to catch up to you and hit you hard. When the conditions and the weather come into play, its a whole other factor. Once the mind goes, the body goes next. Its important to be mentally strong. It was tough out there. It beats up your body and your mind.
Woods also may be playing on his mind over the weekend. Woods is now lurking only five shots behind after three-under 68 on Friday. That left him at two-under 140 for the tournament and in prime position to challenge for his second AT&T title and 74th career victory overall.
Woods, now ranked No. 4 in the world and also a two-time winner this season, ignited a round that began with six straight pars when he hit a 340-yard drive at the 579-yard 16th hole, then followed it with a 240-yard blast to within 48 feet of the flag. He drained that putt, accompanied by a huge roar from his sweat-soaked gallery to get to one-under for the tournament and begin his ascent up the leader board into a tie for tenth place.
Im right there, Woods said of his position. Its playing like a U.S. Open, it really is. Its quick, its dry. At least the Tour moved up a couple of the tees if the pins were in the corners or they were out in front. They did a good job of getting it so we could be aggressive. It was score-able, but definitely not easy.
The eagle putt he described as tricky because it was a double breaking putt up the hill. Its hard left and then you just want to feed back a couple of balls to the right. I was waiting for it to feed back because it was hanging, hanging, hanging and it just fell right in.
The key to Woods round may well have occurred on the previous two holes when he saved precious pars after driving his ball on both holes into deep rough. At the 467-yard 14th he hit a lovely chip to within four feet and made that putt, and at the 490-yard 15th, another chip landed six feet from the hole, and he sank that pressure putt as well.
Woods, who started his round on the tenth hole, gave back a shot at the first hole (his tenth of the day), when he missed a six-foot par putt that left him at even par for the tournament. But at the 413-yard No. 5, he sank a seven-foot birdie putt after a wedge approach, then added one more at the 354-yard No. 8 when his 136-yard wedge left him a three-footer he converted for another.
Woods said his game plan was to stay patient all the way around, particularly with the heat becoming a factor the longer he was out there.
Thats why I train, thats why I run all those miles, he said. This is when fitness does help, and I figured thats one of the reasons why Ive had the success Ive had. You have to hit the golf ball well, but then also theres the mental test. Youre going to be out there for probably six, seven hours, and its going to be tough.
Garrigus birdied two of his final four holes to push up the board and get into a tie for the lead. Hes recently dropped 25 pounds and said that was definitely a factor in allowing him to thrive despite the heat and humidity.
Im a lot more physically fit than I used to be, he said. If you can just mentally put it out of your head. You play well in the heat because you just dont think about it. If you can just get past the fact that youre dripping sweat all over your golf ball, you can block it out. It makes a big, big difference.
Pampling, on the other hand, wasnt at all happy in the heat.
I dont know how much worse it can get out there, he said. Its ridiculous. Its so hot youre looking for wind anywhere, shade. Its just a hot, hot, hot day. Ill be heading back to air-conditioned comfort the rest of the afternoon.
He definitely was not alone.