Earley Leads in Illinois

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Futures TourDECATUR, Ill. -- The Clash once sold a bunch of records with a mantra rock-song chorus, 'Should I stay or should I go?' And more than once in the last few years, veteran player Liz Earley has heard that refrain ringing in her head.
 
She heard it when she putted poorly at LPGA Qualifying School last fall, failing to regain her non-exempt LPGA status. She has heard it many times when her putter has performed like an ill-fitting hammer. But in today's second round of the Michelob ULTRA Futures Charity Golf Classic, the 34-year-old native of St. Catharines, Ontario rolled in 27 putts, including a 15-footer on the last hole for the outright lead. The veteran fired a five-under-par score of 67 to lead the event by a single shot at 135 (-9).
 
'I've been back and forth about whether I wanted to quit this year,' said Earley in a quiet moment following her round that brought tears to her eyes. 'I decided to stick with it, grind it out and see what happens.'
 
One of the longest hitters on the Futures Golf Tour, Earley's calling card has been her booming drives. She pounded several today around the 290-yard mark. She hit a lot of pitching wedges into greens on the par-72, 6,454-yard Hickory Point Golf Course. And she connected on six birdies and one bogey for the day, raining in two putts from 20 feet.
 
'Putting has held me back my whole career and I feel that I've done everything I can do,' said the Canadian. 'But I also feel like I belong on the LPGA Tour. I'm out here [on the Futures Tour] because I love playing. I figured there would be a point in my career where I don't want to play anymore, but I don't feel that yet. A tournament like this makes you excited just to have the opportunity to play professional golf.'
 
When Earley putted out on the 18th green today, several younger Canadians were watching. And they have watched the veteran for years, hoping to follow in her footsteps to the LPGA Tour, where she was a member for five years. Earley has offered advice at times and has listened to her young compatriots at other times. But most of all, she has set a standard for tenacity.
 
'Sometimes, they'll ask me how much I made and I'll tell them that it doesn't matter whether you make 100 bucks or a thousand bucks -- just go play,' said Earley. 'I'm out here to play. I'm not interested in driving to the next tournament Sunday morning.'
 
And play she did. The second-round leader board produced more ties than an IBM board meeting, but Earley managed to hold on to a share of the lead for the entire day. She grabbed sole possession of the lead when she rolled in a birdie putt on the par-five 11th hole, but gave it back on the 12th when she hooked her tee shot, punched out and didn't get up and down for par. Two holes later on the par-five 14th, she pitched to four feet and drained another birdie to regain a share of the lead. When her last birdie putt dropped at 18, Earley was singing a different song.
 
But the Tour's longest-running tournament wouldn't be complete without some drama. Breathing down the veteran's collar was rookie Malinda Johnson of Eau Claire, Wis., who fired her own second-round 67 to move into second place at eight-under 136. Johnson's professional career began in Indiana four weeks ago after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. She finished second there in her pro debut.
 
Three players tied at seven-under-par 137 -- each firing rounds of three-under 69 -- were top-ranked Jimin Kang of Seoul, Korea, Kalen Anderson of Minnetonka, Minn., and 19-year-old rookie Aram Cho of Seoul.
 
Johnson's former college teammate at Wisconsin, rookie Katie Connelly, fired a career-low round of 65 one day before her 23rd birthday to move into a share of fourth place. The native of Beloit, Wis., is tied at six-under 138, with Kris Tamulis of Naples, Fla., and Yvonne Cox of Charleston, W.Va.
 
Earley will have her work cut out for her in Sunday's final round. But no doubt, she'd lean on her driver, count on her putter and know that there's no time like the present. The only place Earley hopes to go right now is to the top. And it's a place where she hopes to stay.