- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005

Old Blue has officially delivered a must-watch weekend.

Australian stalwart Robert Allenby paced a high-profile assault at Congressional Country Club yesterday, carding a second-round 65 to claim a two-stroke lead over a Booz Allen Classic leader board suddenly sparkling with some of the game’s top names.

“The greens are so soft that you can just drop it right on top of the flags,” said Allenby (133), who knows he’ll have to maintain his blistering pace on the 7,232-yard, par-71 layout with the likes of Adam Scott (135), Steve Elkington (135), Lee Westwood (135), Ernie Els (136) and Shigeki Maruyama (136) poised on his flanks. “With low numbers out there, it should be a wide-open weekend.”

Allenby’s tale this season is among the most bizarre in recent PGA Tour lore. The four-time tournament winner began the year as one might expect from a player who has spent the bulk of his career ranked among golf’s top 35, collecting a pair of top-10 finishes on the West Coast.

But while dining out in Los Angeles on the Friday of the Nissan Open on Feb. 18, Allenby encountered a mercilessly spicy entree of Kung Pao shrimp. When he woke the next morning, his hands were swollen, stiff and achy.

“If we were playing Saturday of L.A., I would have pulled out because my hands were massive,” Allenby said after yesterday’s scorching round. “I couldn’t have held a club to play. … I couldn’t even bend my hands.”

Allenby was fortunate that storms washed out the weekend at Riviera and gifted him with a T7 finish (69-67). But his hands, particularly the area around the knuckles of his right hand, haven’t been the same since. He often wakes up with such stiffness in his fingers that he can’t come close to making a fist.

The condition hasn’t affected his ball-striking much; Allenby still ranks 15th on tour in greens in regulation. But it’s savaged his short-game feel, and the result has been one of the most prolonged slumps of his career. In his 10 post-Kung Pao starts, he has just one top-25 finish and has missed four cuts. He hadn’t missed more than five cuts in a full season since his rookie year on tour (1999).

“I find that in the morning it’s really stiff. I run it under the hot water and then it eases off a little bit,” said Allenby of his right hand, which he treats with mild anti-inflammatories but plans to have further evaluated after next week’s U.S. Open. “I just try to deal with it and play through it and hope that I’ll wake up one day and it will feel better. But, yeah, it’s not the best thing to have as a golfer.

“I made the Kung Pao connection last week because I had the same dish again at the Memorial and had another serious flare-up. I’m hoping that’s it, some sort of allergy to chile pepper or something. I can promise you I’m eating bland until I find out for certain.”

There was nothing bland about Allenby’s golf yesterday. His iron play was exceptional, yielding eight birdie chances inside of 10 feet. Allenby converted seven of those chances and made just one bogey, getting stung at the risk-reward ninth when his bold second shot to the 602-yard, par-5 hole fell short into the heavily roughed canyon that might well be labeled Veto Valley. Five more yards and Allenby might have matched, or even clipped, the course-record 63 posted by Matt Gogel during Thursday’s opening round.

The latter’s putter cooled to mortal standards yesterday as Gogel (135), caught in the wash of the high-profile players jetting up the board, fluttered back to the field with a 72.

Defending champion Scott and world No. 3 Els headlined the day’s marquee movers.

Scott, still chafing from an anomalous closing 81 at last week’s Memorial, hit 14 greens en route to a fairly ho-hum 68 to earn a place beside Allenby in today’s final pairing.

“That [final round at the Memorial] was a bit of a shock,” said the game’s 24-year-old prodigy after joining countrymen Allenby and Elkington at the top of the board. “It didn’t bother my confidence, but it was humiliating. I came here very determined to make up for that mistake. And so far I’m on track to do that.”

Els, the pre-tournament favorite given his status and 1997 U.S. Open victory at Congressional, might have played the best tee-to-green golf of any player in the field yesterday.

The 35-year-old South African purred his way around Old Blue, hitting 16 greens during a second-round 67 that easily could have been better. Els posted his superb score despite missing seven putts inside 15 feet. If the Big Easy finds his comfort zone on the greens this weekend, the rest of the field could be swinging for silver.

“I did have a lot of chances,” said Els, who will be considerably more perplexed if as many chances go wanting at next week’s U.S. Open. “I definitely left a couple out there the last few holes, but I’m happy I didn’t let the leaders get too far away.”

The other three members of the Fab Five in the field (Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen) also survived the weekend cut line, which spared exactly 70 players at 1-under or better. Among that trio, however, only Mickelson (138) has an excellent chance of contending for the Sunday spoils.

“I need to go low this weekend, but at least I gave myself a chance,” said Mickelson, five strokes and 20 players behind Allenby. “Whatever happens it’s just such a treat for us to be able to play this great golf course.”

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