- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

First-round rabbits Ben Curtis and Jose Coceres further separated themselves from the field yesterday at the Booz Allen Classic, surging into potential showdown position on a record-scoring day at TPC at Avenel.

‘With two rounds to go, it doesn’t mean you have the trophy in your hand yet,” said Curtis, who followed his opening 62 with a second-round 65 to establish a 36-hole tournament record at 15-under and pull one stroke clear of Coceres. “Obviously, I won the [2003] British Open, and I had a couple of chances last year. I’m just going to try to take those experiences into the weekend and handle it the best I can.”

Given the forecast, Curtis likely will need a preponderance of focus and patience to win at Avenel. Because after two days of soft greens and warm, windless weather on the 6,987-yard, par-71 course yielded record scores and a record-low cut (2-under), nothing about this weekend’s play is expected to be benign or routine.

With a veritable deluge expected, PGA Tour officials have drastically altered today’s starting times and competitive structure, moving up the first tee times to 7 a.m. and mandating a two-tee, three-man format to try and beat the anticipated storms.

Curtis and Coceres, who respectively stand four and three shots clear of the 71 others who survived the weekend axe, will begin third-round play at 9 a.m. in the company of Jeff Gove.

“Obviously, that will make it easier,” Curtis said of the unusual early morning start for the leaders. “When you don’t play until 2 p.m. in the afternoon, you’re up at 7 a.m. or whatever in the morning, and you have all the time in the world to think about it.”

The less time Curtis spends ruminating on his unaccustomed position atop the leader board the better. Not only will the early start reduce stress for the player who hasn’t really threatened victory since his shocking triumph at Royal St. George’s, it might also allow him to continue his ludicrous roll with the short stick.

An instant gallery favorite thanks to his Redskins’ garb, Curtis conducted a putting clinic on Avenel’s greens yesterday, one-putting 12 times and using just 24 swipes with the blade to parlay a middling ball-striking round into a 36-hole total that clipped Adam Scott’s tournament record from 2004 (66-62, 14-under) by one.

“It’s not what you wear; it’s obviously how you play,” the 29-year-old Curtis said after explaining he would stick with Redskins’ colors over the weekend, eschewing the Ravens’ purple that produced a Thursday 62. “But it never hurts to have a few extra people rooting for you.”

Coceres has an entire country in his corner. The 42-year-old from Chaco, Argentina, posted a second consecutive 64 and then smiled his way through an interview conducted in broken English.

“I play very good for my golf,” said Coceres, a two-time PGA Tour winner in 2001 (Heritage Classic, Disney) who lost his game and eventually his tour card after breaking his left wrist in a pick-up soccer game in 2002.

Speaking through his caddie, Luis Sira, a Rockville resident and some-time looper at Congressional, Coceres explained that he lost 40 yards off the tee as a result of the broken wrist. An extremely short hitter already, Coceres couldn’t compete after such a loss of power.

Eventually, he gained some of the yardage back through the combination of a swing change and healing, but he still only averages in the low-260s in driving yardage. That puts an immense amount of pressure on his iron play and putting, but Coceres has responded this week by hitting 29 greens and ranking third in the field in putting (26.0 putts per round).

Perhaps, that’s because the pressure of playing is slight compared to the stress of not being able to find a place to play. Without his card, Coceres has to rely on sponsor’s exemptions and lightly attended events (where he has a chance to get in as a past champion off the alternates’ list) for his starts. Thus far this season, he hasn’t received a single sponsor’s exemption despite contacting every tournament. He has made only four starts (including this week) this season, including a tie for ninth at the Heritage Classic in April. A top-10 finish this week automatically qualifies him for next week’s event in Hartford (Buick Championship).

“I like to play next week, and this is very good for me for next week,” said Coceres, who admits the extensive time off, while frustrating, has helped him in certain ways. “It’s been very happy for me to stay at home with my family and not work too much. … Maybe my head is more clean.”

That’s likely to be the only clean thing for Coceres and the rest of the field if today’s round turns into a slog-fest between mudders. If so, watch for lurking field gems Steve Stricker (7-under) and Padraig Harrington (7-under) to make a move. Stricker won the event at Avenel in the rain in 1996. And few in the field have played more rainy-day golf than Harrington, the 34-year-old Dubliner ranked 23rd in the world.

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