A familiar leader, new set of challengers for Tiger Woods

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Jack Nicklaus finished his PGA Championship career with a birdie. Just as fitting, Tiger Woods finished in the lead.

Woods took a break from his domination of the major championships to applaud his idol fighting to the end to try to make the cut. Nicklaus nearly holed out a sand wedge for eagle on the 18th, the ball skimming past the edge of the cup.

''Pretty cool,'' Woods said.

Then, he was back to business. With a plugged lie in the bunker, Woods got up and down for birdie to complete another near flawless round, a 5-under 67 that tied the PGA scoring record for 36 holes and gave him a one-stroke lead over Scott Dunlap.

It was the only time Woods took notice of anything but his pursuit of a third straight major championship. Not that it would have mattered.

''I think he's a better player than I was,'' Nicklaus conceded after two days of playing with the man whose sole purpose in golf is to break his record of 18 major victories.

Woods took another step Friday with a two-day total of 133. Already the youngest player to win the career Grand Slam, the 24-year-old Woods is now two rounds away from joining Ben Hogan as the only players to win three professional majors in one season.

''He's won more majors than I've made cuts in,'' said Dunlap, who had a 68 and went 12 holes at rain-softened Valhalla Golf Club before giving up the lead.

That just about sizes up the rest of the players trying to catch Woods.

Among the next dozen behind him as the second round was wrapping up, only 1997 PGA champion Davis Love III knows what it's like to win a major. Love hasn't won a tournament of any kind in over two years, and he didn't do himself any favors on the last two holes.

With a chance to edge closer to Woods, he bogeyed the last two holes - the 18th in near darkness - for a 69 to finish at 137.

Fred Funk, a five-time winner but never close in the biggest tournaments, birdied the last two holes for a 68 to join Love and J.P. Hayes at 137. Hayes, whose only PGA Tour victory came two years ago, also shot a 68.

Another stroke behind was Bob May, who finally got his PGA Tour card this year after four years on the European tour.

''I don't think we're scared of Tiger. We're amazed at Tiger,'' Funk said. ''He has taken the game to a whole new level that nobody has ever seen. He is a special one.''

Not that Woods cares who is chasing him.

''Everyone else looks at him, and you can just tell that he's not looking at anybody else,'' Hayes said. ''It's just Tiger and the course.''

Advantage, Tiger.

He destroyed the field at Pebble Beach, where he became the first player to win the U.S. Open in double digits under par (12). Ditto for St. Andrews, where he became the first player in major championship history to finish 19 under.

He set the record in the Masters three years ago with an 18-under 270. The only major in which he doesn't own the scoring record is the PGA Championship.

Give him time. Like two more days.

''The thing with majors ... the better plays relish those moments,'' Dunlap said. ''It's not that their games are that much better, it's that they are so much better in that situation. And that's why Tiger will be so difficult to beat. That's what he lives for.''

The PGA record is 17 under set by Steve Elkington and Colin Montgomerie in 1995 at Riviera, where Elkington won in a playoff. Woods needs only two more rounds in the 60s, which doesn't seem like too much ask because he has done that his last seven rounds in major championships.

Already, his 11-under 133 tied the PGA record in relation to par last set by Mark O'Meara and Ernie Els in 1995 at Riviera.

''My game is coming around,'' Woods said. ''I'm starting to hit more solid shots every day. If you can keep managing your game, you never know what can happen.''

Everyone has a pretty good idea.

This is the third straight major in which Woods has led after 36 holes - by six strokes in the U.S. Open and three strokes in the British Open. Woods joked that such a small margin at Valhalla must mean that ''I'm getting old.''

His only mistake was a three-putt on the 17th for his only bogey, which dropped him into a tie with Dunlap. Woods responded with a bunker shot to 18 feet and a putt that capped off an emotional scene on the 18th.

Playing in his final PGA, Nicklaus nearly holed a sand wedge for eagle that might have enabled him to make the cut. He finished with a birdie for a 1-under 71, only the third time he has broken par this year.

''He just played brilliantly,'' Nicklaus said. ''He can control the golf course. He made the golf course look like a pitch-and-putt course.''

Stuart Appleby, who missed eight straight cuts in the majors until breaking the streak in the British Open, had a 69 and was at 139.

Els, among those who suffered late Thursday afternoon on baked out greens and a torturously slow pace, had a 68. All that got him was within nine strokes of Woods, and his best chance might be to rally for another runner-up finish in a major.

Phil Mickelson again failed to take advantage of the par 5s - only 1 under on them through two rounds - and was among those at 140. Masters champion Vijay Singh missed the cut for the first time since the 1999 British Open.

Three hours after play ended Thursday night with 18 players still on the course, a violent thunderstorm dumped 3 inches of rain on Valhalla that delayed the start of the round by an hour and again forced suspension of the round because of darkness.

Eleven players will have to finish the second round Saturday.

More than anything, the rain drastically softened the course, making it play longer but also allowing the pins to be attacked.

In other words, vintage conditions for Woods.

''A guy like Tiger, this is right up his alley,'' Els said. ''He can really pull away from the field and play his normal game.''

Others made their moves, just not the players anyone expected.

Hayes was the first to give an indication of the low scoring. He chipped in for birdie on the third hole, made a couple of 30-footers and stumbled only when he fired over the flag into the rough on the 18th, taking a bogey.

He held the lead at 137 - for just more than hour.

Dunlap made a couple of scrambling pars and birdied No. 3 to catch him and slowly built on a solid round. But Hayes is not the name whose Dunlap sought out on the leaderboard.

Woods teed off a short time after Dunlap, and the only question was how long it would take him to assume the lead. Woods missed only one fairway and hit every green on the front nine, going out in 4-under 32 and leading alone for the first time in the tournament when Dunlap bogeyed the 12th from the trees.

Dunlap is holding out hope that a PGA tradition will continue. No one has repeated as champion in 73 years, and 10 of the last 12 champions won their first major in the PGA. And he has some experience playing with Woods.

They were paired on the weekend at Congressional in the 1997 U.S. Open, where Woods finished 10 strokes out of the lead.

''I've never seen so many people on a golf course in my entire life,'' Dunlap recalled. ''I guess tomorrow will be a similar situation. But it wasn't on the line like it will be now.''


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