- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Tiger might have survived, but Phil was simply stupendous.

Golf’s two most popular players shared the spotlight in the sweltering heat yesterday at the 87th PGA Championship. Tiger Woods, the 10-time Slam sultan and pretournament favorite, narrowly dodged his first missed cut at a major as a professional with a 36th-hole birdie to secure his weekend playing privileges on the number at 4-over 144.

Phil Mickelson, meanwhile, put one hand on the Wanamaker Trophy with a sterling second-round 65 at Baltusrol that pushed him to 8 under and left him alone atop the leader board.

“There’s a lot of golf left, but I’m entering the final two rounds with a lot more confidence than I’ve had in a while,” said Mickelson, who scorched the 7,392-yard, par-70 layout for a second consecutive day to forge a three-stroke margin over Jerry Kelly and a field flagging in his wake. “My only focus right now is that this is the last major championship this year, and I want to put everything I have into this one event.”

Mickelson, who memorably shrugged off his major monkey last year at Augusta National when he slipped into a green jacket, electrified the property yesterday morning with an opening-nine 31 that featured four birdies, an eagle (No. 18) and just 11 putts. As each salvo with his smoking short stick carried him deeper into red numbers, Mickelson’s massive gallery grew larger and louder, willing their adopted favorite son toward a second major success.

“We love you, Phil!” howled one possibly possessed middle-aged patron moments after Mickelson coasted home a 20-footer for eagle at the 18th.

And Lefty loved them back, high-fiving and knuckle-bumping his way around the Lower Course to heighten his hero status among fans in the New York area.

“I love the feel that the people here provide,” Mickelson said. “It’s just an incredible feeling.”

Mickelson cooled a bit on his last nine, with a double-bogey on No. 1 and a bogey at the sixth dulling a performance that once seemed destined for the all-time Slam annals. But with Mickelson’s planned soft fade fueling his confidence and his putting pace on the greens nudging perfection, even Woods was quick to presume the tournament was Lefty’s to lose.

“The way Phil’s playing, I’m not sure anyone can catch him,” Woods said after a two-putt birdie at the 18th gave him a second-round 69 that left him among the 79 weekend qualifiers at 4 over or better. “If Phil goes ahead and shoots two good rounds in the mid-60s on the weekend, he’ll probably win the tournament.”

Woods was in high spirits despite his brush with the cut and some rare negative press. He hit the ball well during his second round but his putting was erratic again, resulting in a pair of three-putts. The first of those came in mystifying fashion immediately after an opening-hole birdie.

After puring a pair of shots to eight feet on No. 2 (279 yards, par 4), Woods uncharacteristically hammered his birdie bid three feet past the hole and yanked the comebacker.

And when he followed that miscue with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 4, the latter coming when his pin-tracking tee shot came up two feet short in the green-fronting pond, he stood 7 over for the tournament with his weekend prospects looking gloomy. When a massive limb sheered off a towering oak adjacent to the fourth green before his bogey bid, it seemed almost a sign from above that his day was doomed.

But in typical fashion, he battled his way back into the tournament by playing the back nine in 3 under despite a series of dubious breaks. He reached a fairway bunker he assumed was unreachable with a 315-yard 3-wood on the 13th. And after displaying the moxie to go for the 650-yard 17th in two, his 3-wood that missed the green by no more than four feet caromed into an unplayable lie against the back lip of the left greenside bunker.

“What a break!” Woods screamed upon arriving at the bunker, fuming as he snatched a towel from caddie Steve Williams en route to a hack-and-hope bogey.

But as he has done so often, he gathered himself mentally on the 18th tee when Williams informed him he needed a birdie on the shortish, 545-yard par-5 to make the cut. He scalded a drive down the right center of the fairway, looped a 7-iron within 12 feet and accomplished the feat with a tap-in.

“I had to disappoint you guys — I just couldn’t let you write that article,” Woods said, giving the needle to the media after making his 38th consecutive major cut. “I grinded my butt off today.”

Woods might have made the cut, but with Mickelson rolling and daunting names and major champions like Davis Love III (4 under), Vijay Singh (3 under) and Retief Goosen (2 under) in far better position to challenge Lefty, Tiger’s hopes for a major trifecta this season might have officially withered yesterday.

“I’m 12 strokes back. I’ll be out early tomorrow setting the pins for Phil and the boys and making sure the dew’s wiped off the greens and everything’s nice and ready,” Woods said. “Seriously, yeah, I’ve snuck up and stolen tournaments before, but I’m going to have to post something that gets me into red numbers for the tournament tomorrow and then hope I can make something special happen on Sunday.”

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