NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – K.J. Choi already has won The Players Championship this year. His name already is on the Liberty Bell trophy from winning the inaugural AT&T National in 2007 when it was played at Congressional.
His position atop the leaderboard after two rounds at Aronimink looked even stronger considering what –more than who – was behind him going into the weekend.
Some of the names might sound familiar. Their recent results aren’t terribly daunting. Four of the eight players within three shots of his lead have never won on the PGA Tour. Two others only won once. None of them have a victory over the past two seasons.
Choi matched the course record at Aronimink – although that includes only six rounds – by making five birdies over his last six holes Friday for a 6-under 64 to build a two-shot lead.
“I don’t really pay attention to any records,” said Choi, who was at 7-under 133. “My style is just playing hole by hole, just trying my best each hole, every shot. So when I heard that I tied the course record, I felt very happy, very pleased about that.”
Choi will be paired in the last group Saturday with Chris Riley, one of the top putters on tour (using a 1970 putter that he took from his grandmother nearly 20 years ago). Riley, who shot a 66, won his only tour event in the Reno-Tahoe Open nine years ago.
Also at 5-under 135 were Charlie Wi (66), who is still looking for his first win, and Bo Van Pelt (66), whose lone victory came in the old U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee in 2009 when it was held opposite the British Open.
And then there’s Justin Leonard.
No one among the top 12 on the leaderboard is more accomplished than Leonard, whose 12 career wins include a British Open and The Players Championship. Lately, however, it has been a major struggle.
“I’m just glad I played a couple of rounds that I can build on,” Leonard said. “It will be nice teeing off late on a Saturday. It’s been awhile. Looking forward to seeing what I can do this weekend.”
Leonard is No. 134 in the FedEx Cup standings, leaving him a little more than a month to even qualify for the playoffs. He has only made the cut in half of his 18 starts this year and has yet to record a top 10. Golf has become so frustrating that he and his caddie parted ways last week after Hartford.
Another big change came at home.
Leonard reached out to putting guru Marius Filmalter, who works out of Dallas, and he’s starting to see results. His main teacher is Randy Smith, and he had Smith join them at Royal Oaks a few weeks ago to make sure everyone was on the same page.
“It’s been good, just trying to get connected again,” Leonard said. “My stroke had gotten a little loose, kind of doing too much with the hands and arms and getting the stroke back in the shoulders. And it feels really good.”
It looks pretty good, too.
For all the pretty swings, and even some of the ugly ones, putting compensates for so much at the highest level. Leonard felt as though he were hitting the ball fine, he just wasn’t able to post a decent score.
But after opening with a 68, he overcame a bogey on his opening hole with a steady round of 67.
That’s the difference between this week and Memorial, and last week at Travelers – being able to make a few putts,” Leonard said. “I don’t feel like I have to hit every green. It creates an ease out there on the golf course that I haven’t played with in awhile, and it’s been very nice.”
The hard part will come on the weekend, as players try to handle Aronimink and catch up to Choi.
The greens are in such pure condition, and so close to the edge of being too firm and fast, that they were watered just enough to keep them ready for two more days of the AT&T National. Leonard and Van Pelt were surprised that in afternoon sunshine, the greens still were holding shots instead of shots bouncing beyond the hole.
But there was a catch.
“I thought it might bake out more,” Van Pelt said. “If you’re in the rough, they roll out on the greens. If you’re in the fairway, they’re holding. And that’s ideal.”
There haven’t been too many complaints, if any, about Aronimink this week. It’s an old classic, and as Van Pelt noted, it’s been around so long because no one has messed it up.
“This is a golf course where you can run up a bunch of bogeys,” Wi said. “You’re not going to lose too many spots if you make par. If you stay patient out here, that’s probably the most important thing.”
Choi had some separation with his big finish, although so many others were very much in the mix. Charles Howell III birdied his last hole (after back-to-back bogeys) for another 68 and was in the group of four players at 4-under 136.
Adam Scott, who shared the lead after the opening round with Hunter Haas, looked as though he might come undone when he took double bogey on the par-3 14th. His tee shot went into an ugly lie in the rough, and his plan was to get it onto the green and let it roll to the cup. He didn’t quite get it on the green, and three-putted from 45 feet – the putt he made for double bogey was just over 4 feet.
He played with Choi and was falling further behind until making two birdies over his final hour to salvage a round of 71, leaving him in the group at 137 that included Fowler (69) and Joe Ogilvie (70).
“Those birdies were really big,” Scott said. “It’s easy to get it stuck in reverse on a course like this. And playing with K.J., the way he was going at the end, it was nice to keep in touch.”