- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Midpoint Masters fox Chad Campbell must hear the Big Five bugles blowing.

Campbell followed his opening 71 with a sterling second-round 67 yesterday at Augusta National to reach the turn at the 70th Masters three strokes clear of the field. But given the 32-year-old Texan’s callow major credentials, and the high-profile hounds behind him warming to the weekend hunt, rarely has a three-shot lead at a major seemed so tenuous.

“You know, it’s special to be leading after two rounds,” said Campbell (6-under 138), who heads a leader board dauntingly dotted with each of the world’s top five players — Tiger Woods (143), Vijay Singh (141), Phil Mickelson (142), Retief Goosen (143) and Ernie Els (142). “But I don’t think there’s anything to celebrate. I haven’t really accomplished much yet.”

Campbell could as easily be commenting on his nascent career as his first two days on Augusta National’s stretched-out layout, which now measures a prodigious 7,445 yards from the championship tees.

After an All-American career at UNLV, complete dominance on the mini-tours (1998-2000), a superb season on the Nationwide Tour (2001) and a promising rookie campaign on the PGA Tour (2002), Campbell was tabbed by his peers as the young player most likely to win a major in Sports Illustrated’s 2003 preseason issue.

But if his results in standard tour events have merited that confidence — steady play in 2003 and 2004 earned him a berth on the last U.S. Ryder Cup squad — his play in golf’s four majors has been something of a disappointment. In 16 career major starts, Campbell has just one top-10 finish — a runner-up performance at the 2003 PGA Championship, where he finished two behind Oak Hill stunner Shaun Micheel.

“Your goal is to compete in all of the majors,” said Campbell, whose three career PGA Tour victories include a breakout win at the prestigious Tour Championship (2003) and a return to form earlier this season at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. “I haven’t done that as well as I’d like obviously, and I think that’s what I’ve been working toward.”

Campbell always has been known as a superb ball-striker. That strength manifested itself once again yesterday as he hit 11 of 14 fairways and 15 greens. But he doesn’t have the best of relationships with his putter, a sure formula for failure at the majors. His confidence with the blade is definitely the thing to watch as Campbell heads into the weekend with golf’s glitterati on his tail.

“He’s won some big tournaments, like Bay Hill last year and the Tour Championship,” Mickelson said of Campbell. “He’s just a tremendous player. … He’s going to be really tough this weekend, really tough.”

So is the golf course. Though overnight storms are expected to soften the layout somewhat, Augusta National was approaching its fiery best yesterday afternoon, when gusting winds further parched the planet’s most diabolical set of putting surfaces and made club selection a dangerous and daunting chore.

Campbell was lucky enough to beat the breeziest weather to the clubhouse, posting his red-number salvo early. But most, including the entire Big Five, weren’t as lucky. Opening-round leader Singh reached 7 under with birdies on two of the layout’s first three holes to seemingly take command of the tournament. But the normally steady Fijian uncharacteristically fell prey to three wind-buffeted double-bogeys (Nos. 4, 5 and 14) and was only able to remain in contention thanks to his dogged constitution.

Woods’ round was slightly less harried, as the four-time Masters winner and 10-time major champion overwhelmed three bogeys principally by dominating the layout’s par 5s. Just as he did on Thursday, Woods struggled with his putter, missing an array of mid-range birdie putts. But kickaway birdies on the layout’s final three par 5s (Nos. 8, 13 and 15) kept him positioned for a weekend charge.

“Today was really tough out there,” Woods said. “It was windy, swirly, and it just played very difficult. I mean, a good shot can end up in a bad spot, and you just have to accept the consequences and move on. … I’m in contention, and that’s all you can ask.”

In all, 47 players survived the event’s 36-hole cut at 4 over or better. And though few of the game’s biggest names headed to the airport last night, the list of notables failing to make the cut included Masters maven Chris DiMarco (150) and recent major champions Michael Campbell (149) and David Toms (150).

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