Leaney Leads DiMarco in the Hunt

By Associated PressMarch 9, 2007, 5:00 pm
2007 PODS ChampionshipPALM HARBOR, Fla. -- On a golf course where Stephen Leaney said there were no easy holes, he had a simple explanation for how he wound up atop the leaderboard Friday at the PODS Championship.
'I've probably holed more putts than anyone,' Leaney said.
Staring into a bright sun that toyed with his depth perception, Leaney watched a 40-foot birdie putt on the last hole tumble in for birdie and a 4-under 67, giving him a one-shot lead over Heath Slocum on an Innisbrook course that won't let anyone get too far ahead.
Defending champion K.J. Choi and Chris DiMarco were among those another shot behind, but the true measure of this tournament was found further down the leaderboard. Only 37 players remained under par and 27 of them were within four shots of the lead.
Brad Faxon was only four shots behind until he struggled down the stretch and made the cut on the number. Even so, he and the others in last place were only eight shots behind.
'When you shoot under par on this golf course, you've got to feel pretty good,' said Slocum, who felt great after a 69.
Putting is imperative at any tournament, but it has been key for Leaney. He can't remember the last time he made more than a few putts longer than 10 feet, he shouldn't have a problem now. The shortest of his six birdie putts was 12 feet, the 40-footer on the 18th hole gave him the lead and he even picked up what he called a miracle birdie along the way.
Leaney had 250 yards for his third shot on the par-5 fifth, hit it into the rough, then chipped in.
'This golf course just wears you out,' said the 37-year-old Australian, who was at 6-under 136.
Even course officials were concerned when the tournament moved from late October to early March, causing a drastic change in the grass. Instead of the dry, crispy conditions in the fairway and prevalent Bermuda rough, the rye grass used in Florida over the winter to keep a green look to the course has made it play longer and at times softer.
Some thought it might be a little easier.
'Just look at the board,' DiMarco said after his second straight 69.
Vaughn Taylor (68), rookie Doug LaBelle (71), Pat Perez (70), Daniel Chopra (71) and Jonathan Byrd (69) were in the group at 138. Another shot behind was a group that included Billy Andrade, Arron Oberholser and first-round Cliff Kresge, who was nine shots worse with a 74.
Vijay Singh, a past champion at the Copperhead course, was poised to join the leaders until dropping two shots down the stretch, winding up at 2-under 140 and very much in the picture.
It's the second straight week on the PGA TOUR that players have had to work hard for their scores. The winning score at the Honda Classic was 5-under 275 and led to a four-man playoff. Next week is Bay Hill, which will play as a par 70.
Innisbrook has always been a par 71, and it has always been tough.
This week is no exception.
Leaney said he felt like he was back at Olympia Fields, where he was runner-up to Jim Furyk in the 2003 U.S. Open.
'I play my best golf where you really think yourself around a golf course properly, and I think that's why I've played well here the last couple of years,' he said. 'A lot of weeks, it's not like that. It's just bombs away.'
DiMarco said he plays several approach shots the way he would at Augusta National, finding small targets on big greens and being extra careful not to wind up on the wrong side of the hole. One of his best shots came on the 13th, about 20 feet above the hole, and DiMarco had to make an 8-footer for par.
This is DiMarco's best chance at winning since the British Open last summer at Hoylake, where he was runner-up to Tiger Woods. Despite consecutive playoff losses in majors and a strong performance in the Presidents Cup, DiMarco has gone five years without a victory on the PGA Tour, and it's testing his patience.
Some of that he attributes to being in the right spot with the wrong guy -- Woods. They were seven shots clear of the field when Woods beat him in a playoff at the Masters. No one was close to them at Hoylake. And at Firestone a few years ago, he was in the clubhouse with a share of the lead until Woods made a late birdie.
'The last three or four chances I had to win, he's been the one to beat me,' DiMarco said.
So he must be thrilled that Woods is nowhere around this week.
'Yes,' DiMarco said with a smile. 'I am.'
But there are too many others to count who could win this tournament, starting with Leaney and going all the way down to Faxon at the bottom of the leaderboard.
John Daly withdrew after nine holes because of his right shoulder, which he injured a week ago when he tried to stop his swing as a fan clicked her camera. 'He was fine the first two holes playing out of the fairway,' Bubba Watson said. 'But it got him when he was in the rough, and he was hitting a lot of shots with one arm.' ... Mark Calcavecchia finished up a 67 to finish at even par and looked slightly disappointed. 'Now I have to go unpack,' he said. Calcavecchia figured he would miss the cut after opening with a 75. 'Told them to have my bags in the parking lot. But I guess this isn't so bad.' ... Tim Herron finished with three birdies on the last four holes to make the cut on the number.
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