NEW ORLEANS -- Joe Durant was starting to panic when he made the four-hour drive to New Orleans, another stop in what was shaping up as a mediocre season of making cuts and cashing small checks.
All it took was two days at the Zurich Classic to improve his outlook.
Durant played his best golf of the year Friday with eight birdies -- four with a wedge in his hand -- on his way to an 8-under-par 64 that gave him a two-shot lead over Brett Wetterich going into the weekend.
Durant was at 12-under 132, and when told that he was more than halfway toward a 72-hole scoring record at English Turn (22 under), it was all he could do to keep from laughing.
"It's way too early to start thinking about that kind of stuff," he said. "For me, I'm happy to be playing fairly solid."
Wetterich closed with an 8-foot birdie on the ninth hole for a 65.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen sputtered at the start and then steadily improved for a 3-under 69 that left him in a group of seven players at 9-under 135 that included three rookies (Charley Hoffman, Eric Axley and Ryan Hietala) and Ian Poulter, who had never played the course until he stepped onto the first tee Thursday.
David Toms, who won in New Orleans five years ago and has raised more than $1.5 million through his foundation to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, ran off eight birdies in a round of 67 that left him in the group at 136.
Masters champion Phil Mickelson wasn't sure what to make of his round. He hit two balls in the water, but was thankful two others barely stayed on land. And by the end of a 1-under 71 that left him seven shots behind, Lefty thought he found something in his swing that might help him on the weekend.
"My expectations were a lot higher," said Mickelson, trying to win his third consecutive start. "The last four holes, I started to hit it a lot better. I think I should have a much better weekend than I had the first couple days."
Durant sure didn't have high expectations.
Without a victory since he won the Bob Hope Classic and Doral in consecutive starts five years ago, Durant had only eight rounds in the 60s this year, and while he has made seven out of 10 cuts, he has yet to crack the top 35.
Durant, who lives in Pensacola, Fla., and considers New Orleans the closest thing he has to a hometown event, opened with a 68 and then fired away in a warm, steady breeze Friday morning that came out of the opposite direction and made English Turn play about one shot harder than the first day.
He birdied three straight holes, one of those a 6-iron to about a foot on the par-4 fifth, and was solid with his irons except for one shot. With a 9-iron left on the 14th, he left it 40 feet away and wound up making that putt for birdie. For a guy who hasn't had much go right this year, he called this a steady round that ended up being a 64.
"I just got off to a shaky start this year," Durant said. "Most of my career, I basically relied on hitting the ball fairly well. When you don't, the panic flag can go up a little bit. I made a lot of cuts, but I haven't played particularly well. It's such a fine line out here. It can drive you nuts sometimes. You've got to work through it and keep practicing."
The cut was at 4 under, however, so only eight shots separated first from last with 36 holes to play. It was so bunched that Toms was tied for 10th, but as close to the lead as he was to the bottom.
He prefers to think of himself as four shots behind, and he figures to have most of the gallery behind him on the weekend considering his Louisiana ties and how Katrina hit home to him. This is the first nationally televised sporting event since the hurricane.
"I'm playing on Saturday," said Toms, who missed the cut the last two tournaments. "I hit the ball well, and that set me up to have a lot of irons shots where I could attack."
He was concerned when he started his day at 3 under, and saw a message on one of the leaderboards that the cut was projected at 4 under. The wind was blowing across most fairways, making it tougher than usual. Toms, who had missed his last two cuts, did not want to be home for the weekend at this tournament.
"I just poured it on," he said of his eight birdies.
Poulter decided to stay home in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday, allowing the Englishman who loves his clothes to bring only a carry-on bag for his flight to New Orleans. "To have another day at home and to walk on the airplane and throw your stuff in the hole at the top, that was awesome," he said. ... Chris DiMarco shot 77 and missed the cut for the third time in his last four starts since injuring his ribs while skiing. DiMarco's best finish this year is a tie for ninth in the Match Play Championship. ... Scott Verplank had a hole-in-one on the 17th hole on his way to a
69 that left him at 5-under 137.