- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. | The 73rd Masters began with anticipation of a potential animosity-laden duel between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the game’s top two. Instead, a pair of provincial pals and relative major strangers have crashed the high-profile party at Augusta National.

On a breezy day that relegated Woods (142) and Mickelson (141) to the periphery of contention, Chad Campbell and Kenny Perry surged to the top of the midpoint leader board at 9 under. Perry shot a 5-under-par 67 to pull even with Campbell at 9-under 135.

“I’ve never been like a big, high-profile, supposed-to-win-the-majors [player] or anything,” said Campbell, who carded a 70.

Campbell’s peers expected him to become that kind of marquee force when they voted him “most likely to make a major breakthrough” in Sports Illustrated’s 2003 golf preview issue. Though he has won four times on the PGA Tour since, most notably at the 2004 Tour Championship, he’s been little more than an afterthought in the four major events.

In 26 previous major starts, Campbell has collected only two top-10 finishes — at the 2003 PGA Championship and the 2006 Masters. Interestingly, he also led through 36 holes at that Masters before crashing to a 75-71 finish that left him three strokes behind Mickelson.

“I had a chance, an outside chance, on Sunday,” said Campbell, who had to play 32 holes that day because of Saturday’s virtual washout. “Hitting it in the water on 15 kind of stands out. … If I make eagle, you know, I get pretty close to Phil. I can’t remember the exact details. I’d like to forget it. … But I know it’s nice that I’ve been in that position before. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s definitely nice to not be on foreign ground.”

Or in foreign company. As the ultimate major bonus, Campbell will play Saturday’s round beside Perry, a Ryder Cup teammate and one of his best friends on tour.

“He’s a great friend of mine,” Campbell said. “And he’s a great player. He’s one of the best drivers of the ball we have out here — possibly the best.”

Like Campbell, Perry has a spotty major record, particularly for a player with 13 career PGA Tour victories. Perry’s closest brush with a major win came at the 1996 PGA Championship, where he lost a playoff to Mark Brooks after spending his pre-playoff time in the CBS broadcast booth instead of staying loose on the range — a decision for which he has been criticized.

One behind the top pair stands Angel Cabrera (136), who proved his major mettle at the 2007 U.S. Open. And though Woods is still has a chance, a star-studded cast of 18 players now stand ahead of him, including Sergio Garcia (140), Anthony Kim (140), Jim Furyk (140), Mickelson (141), Vijay Singh (141), Geoff Ogilvy (141) and Steve Stricker (141). Add Perry to the list, and nine of the world’s top 15 players are ahead of Woods.

Woods has never made up a seven-stroke deficit with 36 holes left to win a major. He seemed to sense the desperate nature of his position after another disappointing finish.

“I left a few out there for sure,” Woods said.

For the third consecutive year at the Masters, Woods has struggled with his putting. The 14-time major champion has used 61 putts at Augusta National and ranks near the bottom of the field with the blade through 36 holes.

“I made a few more putts today but still didn’t make enough,” Woods said after close-range misses at Nos. 11, 13 and 18.

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