Hughes leads soggy, wide-open Kemper by 1

3 have line on 1st win

Mickelson is two back

May 26, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

POTOMAC - The line between winning and losing a PGA Tour event is barely discernible, even to the most accomplished of players. So going into the weekend of the $3.5 million Kemper Insurance Open, you can look at those in contention in different ways.

Will it be a chance for Bradley Hughes, Frank Lickliter or Lee Porter to win his first tournament, or yet another opportunity for Phil Mickelson to throw one away? Given what happened during yesterday's second round at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel, it was easy to make a case for each.

Hughes took a big step toward following Rich Beem and Tom Scherrer in becoming the event's third straight first-time winner. Despite their rounds being interrupted by a two-hour, 40-minute rain delay, Hughes shot a record-tying 8-under par 63.

At 9-under 133, the 34-year-old Australian leads Lickliter and Porter by one. Five players - Mickelson, Dan Forsman, Jeff Julian, Chris DiMarco and Kazuhiko Hosokawa of Japan, a runner-up here last year - are two strokes behind. Two other Australians, Stuart Appleby and Robert Allenby, were tied with 1997 champion Justin Leonard, Phil Tataurangi and Steve Lowery at 6-under 136.

"The best thing is that we finished," said Hughes, who completed his round with a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-3 ninth hole in near darkness. "I didn't think we would play at all [after the rain]. It was a little eerie out there at the end."

Even before the rains came, Mickelson must have had that feeling.

Call it deja blew all over again.

What Mickelson did throughout his round of 4-under par 67 was simply a continuation of what the 30-year-old left-hander has done for most of the 2001 season. He made seven birdies but also three bogeys, and missed a bunch of short putts.

"Scorewise, it probably should have been significantly lower, but I feel like I've put myself in good position for the weekend, which was the goal," said Mickelson, who once had a three-stroke lead over Appleby before bogeying two of his last three holes.

Asked if he was frustrated by his erratic play, Mickelson said: "It's not thrilling. I feel as if I lost four to six shots a round [the first two days] and I should have been able to separate myself from the field, and I haven't been able to do that. From where I should be and where I am, it's certainly frustrating."

That's been a common emotion for Mickelson these days. Since winning his only event this year with a playoff double bogey over Lickliter at the Buick Invitational in early February, Mickelson has thrown away chances to win three tournaments, including the Masters.

Starting yesterday on the 10th hole at 3-under par, Mickelson made birdies on each of his first two holes and got to 9-under with an uphill 14-footer for birdie on the par-4 fourth. Things started to unravel when he missed a 5-footer for birdie on the par-5 sixth hole.

"It wasn't the turning point," said Mickelson, who three-putted from 30 feet on the par-4 seventh hole and flubbed a chip on the par-4 eighth. "I just let a few shots away at the end. I don't think the game's got me. I am not scoring the way I'm playing. And that's frustrating."

Mickelson had said before the tournament that his short putting woes were the result of not practicing after his round. But Mickelson opted to get away from Avenel as quickly as possible, taking his wife, Amy, and their 23-month old daughter, Amanda, out for lunch.

"I don't see how grinding on the range or hitting putt after putt is really going to do any good," said Mickelson, who is ranked second in the world to Tiger Woods. "It's not as though I'm hitting bad shots. I'm hitting great shots. I'm hitting some pretty good putts. But I'm not going to beat myself up over it all."

The way Hughes played yesterday by making six birdies and an eagle-3 on the par-5 fourth hole, there was another kind of dM-ijM-` vu.

Eight years ago, an unknown Australian named Grant Waite won here for what remains his only PGA Tour victory. Three years ago, Appleby won here for the second of his three tour victories. This time the former professional Australian Rules football player hopes it is his turn.

"Australians have a good history here," said Hughes, who has won his country's Masters and Players Championship.

Hughes was asked whether he or Mickelson will have more pressure the next couple of days.

"Probably me," Hughes said bluntly. "He's done it all before. He knows what to do and it makes it easier on him. You can't worry about anyone else. Phil has had a lot of chances to win, so obviously that might be something in the back of his mind."

Actually, those thoughts must occupy a good part of Mickelson's head. He blew a four-shot lead in the final round at Colonial last week, and a three-shot lead in the final round at New Orleans three weeks ago. That is on top of what happened to him at Augusta in April, when late bogeys cost him a chance at his first major championship.

"I think I need to approach the round in a more positive frame of mind and think about the shots that I've gained, that I've hit well, that I've captured or made birdies on as opposed to the shots that I've let slip away, because that seems to snowball and lead to more [bad] shots," he said yesterday.

Just then, Amanda's tiny voice could be heard from the back of the media tent.

"Hi, Daddy," she said.

"Hi, Amanda," he said.

It was the first time Mickelson had smiled in a couple of hours. Whether it will be last depends on what happens this weekend at Avenel, where several players have a chance to win. But the way things are these days on the PGA Tour, it's only Mickelson's tournament to lose.

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