- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 16, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa. — Perhaps the solution to savage Oakmont is as simple as blunt force.

Another day of soaring scores on the Steel City Serpent left an unlikely pair of brutish heroes atop the leader board at the midpoint of the U.S. Open. While the majority of the field faded around them, noted bombers Angel Cabrera (140) and Bubba Watson (141) powered their way to the weekend pole at 7,230-yard, par-70 Oakmont.

Cabrera, the 37-year-old Argentine who ranks second on the European Tour in driving distance (305.3 yards), closed yesterday’s second frame with a tap-in birdie to claim the outright lead after a massive final drive that measured well more than 330 yards uphill.

“Definitely making birdie on that last hole gives you a good sensation for what is ahead,” said Cabrera, who has posted six top-10 finishes at the majors over the last decade, including a tie for seventh at the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills. “I’ve never been after 36 holes on top of the leader board at a major, but I’m trying to make the most of it. … It’s great to finish this way, but I will have to keep concentrating for tomorrow, because that is when the tournament is going to start.”

Though he finished in less dramatic fashion, the 28-year-old Watson brought a similar game to bear at Oakmont, taking advantage of his power to back up an opening 70 with a 71 on a day when the field average was 76.9. Watson, a hulking lefty with a well-past-parallel swing who ranks first on the PGA Tour in driving distance (316.2 yards), did his share of blasting away. But the amiable, self-taught player from Bagdad, Fla., also turned his outrageous length to his advantage on some of the narrower holes on the property (Nos. 3, 5 and 14), using a booming 6-iron for accuracy where most of the field was forced to play long irons and fairway woods.

Unlike Cabrera, who boasts three European Tour victories and has contended seriously in a handful of Masters (2002, 2006) and British Opens (1999, 2006), Watson hasn’t posted a victory in his four seasons on the Nationwide and PGA tours and had never played in a U.S. Open before this week, much less contended in one.

“I’m going to feel like throwing up the whole time,” said Watson of his coming weekend in the limelight. “I’m going to be nervous no matter what. I was nervous in the practice rounds. But I’m excited, because I want to show people that I can play golf.”

Though Watson is the rawest of major contenders, he does have a certain working knowledge of what it takes to succeed in Slams after spending the last month or so playing the bulk of his practice rounds alongside Tiger Woods (145). Unlike many tour players, who are overwhelmed by Woods‘ aura and station, the personable Watson marched right up to Woods earlier this season and asked if he could accompany him on his dawn-patrol practice rounds. Woods surprised him by immediately agreeing, and the two have become good friends.

“I just ask him a bunch of questions like a little dog chasing a bulldog and yapping at his feet to see how he works and how he ticks,” Watson said. “I ask him what he writes in his yardage book about every hole on every green. I just watch his mannerisms and see how he goes through his practice.

“I believe he’s the best player that ever lived, because I never got to see Nicklaus, and I want to know why. I never took a technical lesson, because I don’t believe in it. My daddy just told me to swing as hard as you can and hit it as far as you can as a junior, and I’ve never looked back. But I’ve been taking different kinds of lessons from Tiger on playing strategy, and I do believe in that.”

Tiger, who is tied for 13th after scrambling to a second-round 74, smiled broadly when asked about his new pupil.

Bubba is a great kid, and I enjoy playing with him,” Woods said. “He’s got so much talent, and he just needs how to learn to play strategically. He’s got all the power, and you can’t teach power. You can teach strategics. If you watch him play, he’s not just all power. He plays shots. He’s from the old school that way. He likes to shape it both ways, and that’s a missing art nowadays. … But he’s on his own this weekend. We all have to learn how to take that next step on our own.”

One high-profile player who won’t be plodding around Oakmont anymore this week is world No. 2 Phil Mickelson (151). Lefty was among a gaggle of 19 players at 11-over who were all instantly sent packing (via the 10-shot rule) when Cabrera carded his closing birdie late in the afternoon.

“I did not knock out Mickelson. Mickelson knocked out himself,” said Cabrera when the subject came up at his post-round interview. “He shot 11-over par.”

All told, 63 players survived the Open cut at 10-over, and Mickelson (74-77) was far from the only elite victim. A handful of top-10 players in the current world rankings are headed home, including Luke Donald (151), Retief Goosen (153), Henrik Stenson (155) and Adam Scott (158).

And in spite of Oakmont’s glorious history for producing impeccable champions, the current leader board is anything but auspicious. Of the 12 players currently at 4 over or better, only David Toms (144) owns a major title (2001 PGA Championship).

That leaves Woods as an obvious favorite heading into the weekend fray.

“The course is right on the edge,” Woods said. “It’s so hard out there that it’s almost impossible to describe. To put it in perspective, if you’re a 10-handicapper, there’s no way you’re breaking 100 out there. You’ve got to be so patient and on top of that you’ve got to be strong coming out of the rough, and you’ve got to have unbelievable touch on the greens. Most 10-handicappers I know don’t have that.”



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