Early birds: Players capitalize on calm
By David Kraft
CHASKA, Minn. -- Hazeltine National, wicked at times on Thursday afternoon, showed a kinder, gentler side Friday morning.
Calm before the storm?
Forecasters expect severe thunderstorms over Hazeltine on Friday night. And in the aftermath, they expect 30-40 mph winds on Saturday afternoon.
Justin Leonard, who won his only major in the wind and weather of the British Open at Royal Troon five years ago, can't wait.
"I'd rather see par be a good score," Leonard said. "If the course stayed like it was this morning, it would be more of a shootout. And while I think I can compete, my game and temperament is better suited to par being a good score. And for that to happen this weekend, I think the wind needs to pick up and the golf course needs to dry out a little bit."
The wind is one weapon Hazeltine has at its disposal. Thursday, Woods said the wind blew in different directions on parallel holes.
"It's so tough out there to figure out," he said. "It's changing its intensity, but also its direction."
In the second round of the 1970 U.S. Open at Hazeltine, the wind blew and scores soared (more than 40 percent of the field couldn't break 80), prompting Dave Hill to make his famous assessment that the course was a "cow pasture." Hazeltine has matured since, with bigger trees and more protection. But if the wind really blows?
"It affects everything," Leonard said. "It affects what clubs you hit from off the tee. The golf course starts to try out, so it adds a whole lot of factors into your decision-making process. you know, you can hit some good shots and not be rewarded for them when the conditions get difficult." -- David Kraft
Dr. Evil turned into Dr. Phil.
The punishing wind, which kept flags outstretched Thursday afternoon, laid down. The nasty greens, which helped lead to 72 scores of 75 or higher Thursday, seemed to hold better. And the early second-round starters, including Justin Leonard, Rich Beem, Mark Calcavecchia and Retief Goosen, took their good fortune and banked a little of it.
Leonard and Beem shot 6-under-par 66; Calcavecchia shot 68 and Goosen shot 69 to push the lead in the PGA Championship to 6-under.
"It was definitely an advantage to play in the morning," said Leonard, who hadn't gone this low in a PGA Championship since 1997.
Beem, Leonard and Robert Allenby, who shot 66 after shooting 76 on Thursday afternoon, tied the competitive course record -- and beat (by one) the best scores recorded in any previous major at Hazeltine.
"It played about as easy as you'll see it," said Leonard, who's round included seven birdies and just one bogey. "I took advantage of that."
Golfers, especially at major championships, want control of everything. They control the type of clubs they swing, the type of balls they hit, the pace they keep.
But they can't control the weather, and can't control the time they play in the first two rounds. One will be in the morning, one in the afternoon -- and luck of the draw dictates which is which.
Jokingly (or so they say), a number of players say that Tiger Woods seems to get the best of the draw more often than not. Woods counters that. At the British Open at Muirfield, the weather didn't give him any breaks -- his 81 in the third round came during the worst four hours of weather all weekend.
Woods played in the afternoon Friday, or until play was halted at 6:21 p.m. local time because of rain and lightning. He was 2-under for the day. Only Fred Funk, who was 3-under through 13 holes -- 7-under for the tourney -- was better.
But once again, the afternoon session was the short end of the stick. Hazeltine gave up just five rounds in the 60s on Thursday. There were 10 among the 78 starters on Friday morning alone. Of the players who finished Friday afternoon, only one -- Pierre Fulke -- broke 70 (he shot 68).
The average score was about a shot and a half lower in Friday's second round than it was Thursday.
Allenby improved his score by 10 shots. Darren Clarke, who shot 79 on Thursday, improved too by nine. Thomas Levet was eight shots better Friday with a 70. Chris DiMarco and Loren Roberts were both seven shots better.
"It was very possible to shoot a really good score if you played great," said Calcavecchia, who shot 68, 66 and 65 in the final three rounds last year at the Atlanta Athletic Club to climb to a tie for fourth place.
Safely in the clubhouse, Leonard looked out as storm clouds rolled in and a gentle rain fell briefly. He smiled as the flags snapped at attention -- and he wasn't alone.
"I've got my 36 (holes) in," said Calcavecchia. "I don't know what's going to happen this afternoon with the weather. But I'm glad I'm kind of sitting here right now."
The forecast for Saturday is for winds approaching 30 miles per hour in the afternoon, with gusts to 40. Leonard will have an afternoon tee time.
"I'd like to see it toughen up," said Leonard. "I'd like to see the greens get a little firmer and wreak a little havoc on this place."
Be careful what you wish for.