GOLF / THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP : It Gets a Little Crowded at Top for Pavin, Sauers


The winds subsided a little, Corey Pavin missed a few putts, Gene Sauers put his tee shot in the lake on the 18th hole and as a result, the Players Championship tightened Friday.

Sauers' only bad shot during the warm and breezy day cost him two strokes and dropped him into a share of the lead with Pavin at 139, five under par at the treacherous 6,896-yard Sawgrass course. Sauers finished at par 72, and Pavin scrambled to a 73 after his 66 Thursday.

"I hit the ball great all day, except for that one shot," Sauers said after pulling his drive into the water. "I came over it a bit and started it left and it kept going that way. I'm still happy with the way I played today. I can live with one mistake."

One shot behind at 140 are Davis Love III, who had a 67, Steve Stricker and Bernhard Langer, who had 71s.

Hale Irwin, who will become eligible for the senior tour in less than three months, put himself in contention with a 68 and shares the 141 spot with D.A. Weibring.

Defending champion Greg Norman was only two shots off the lead when he reached the island green at No. 17, but his tee shot bounced off the green into the water and then took three putts for a triple-bogey six.

There are 20 players within four shots of the lead with 36 holes remaining in the $3-million tournament that brings together the PGA Tour's strongest players.

Phil Mickelson, helped along with the seventh hole in one of his career, shot a 65, the low round of the tournament, and put himself in contention, only five shots out of the lead, at 144.

The San Diego left-hander used a seven-iron on the 192-yard 13th hole, which was playing downwind. The ball landed on the right fringe of the green and rolled along a ridge before heading down a swale to the cup.

"It probably ran 35 feet, with 20 feet of break," Mickelson said. "It came in sideways."

Thursday, on the same hole, Mickelson's tee shot had stopped a foot from the cup.

"I knew he had a hole in one, but a 65 in today's conditions is unbelievable," Pavin said when he saw the scoreboard. "It was very tough out there. The wind was quite different, a 90-degree change in the direction, and the greens were very hard and fast. It was not only difficult to putt, but on some holes it was impossible to get the ball close to the hole.

"I think it was a harder wind today. It wasn't as strong, but the change in direction made a lot of holes cross-wind, and it is really uncomfortable when you're playing cross-wind."

Pavin, who had a remarkable putting round with 11 one-putt greens Thursday, returned to normal with only two birdies, the longest from eight feet.

"They better put some water on the greens or the winning score won't be much lower than it is right now," Pavin said.

Five-over-par 149 made the cut, but there were some big names sent packing: Nick Faldo, 80-73--153; Mark O'Meara, 80-75--155; and Jack Nicklaus, 76-79--155. Faldo won at Doral, and O'Meara won the Honda Classic two weeks ago at Ft. Lauderdale.

Mickelson, who said his 78 on Thursday had him thinking he would be flying home today, started with birdies on the first two holes.

"Yesterday, I was waiting for bad things to happen, and they usually did," he said. "Today, I hit good shots and good things kept happening. Now I'm back in the ballgame."

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