Mickelson in lead at Players tourney


On a long and difficult day walking the cut-line tightrope at the Players Championship, there were occasions when Tiger Woods seemed to be losing the grip, but he never came close to losing his voice.

Woods shot a one-over-par 73 Friday at TPC Sawgrass to survive the cut and fall nine shots behind leader Phil Mickelson, but in his chirpy war of words with Rory Sabbatini, Woods evened the score.

Sabbatini said Thursday that Woods was "as beatable as ever" and liked this "new Tiger."

After Friday's round, Woods offered his rebuttal.

"Well, if I remember the quote correctly, he said he likes the new Tiger," Woods said. "I figure I've won nine of my last 12 and I've won three times this year, the same amount he's won in his career. So I like the new Tiger as well."

Even without such choice verbiage, it was a rollicking day at Sawgrass, where Sabbatini dropped from a tie for third into a tie for 38th when he knocked two balls into the water at the 142-yard par-three 17th on his way a quadruple bogey seven and a round of 79.

Sabbatini didn't back off his comments about Woods.

"If you are going to challenge yourself, challenge yourself against the best," he said. "I never intended it as a dig at Tiger."

Just like Sabbatini at the 17th, Mickelson also appeared to be heading in the wrong direction. But all that changed at the 523-yard 16th when Mickelson ripped a six-iron from 207 yards, stopped the ball seven feet from the pin and rolled in the putt for an eagle.

"It was a big boost to get it back to even," said Mickelson, who finished at even-par 72 to go with his five-under 67 from Thursday.

Mickelson, whose best Players finish is a tie for third in 2004, hit two flagsticks from the fairway, at the ninth and 14th, and said afterward that was where he was aiming.

But he scrambled more often than not and was relieved to be in the lead with the weekend coming up. He helped himself by taking only 23 putts. He had 13 one-putt greens.

"Given how I played and some of the spots I put myself in, I'm very excited to shoot even," he said.

Mickelson's 36-hole score of 139 is one shot better than Nathan Green, who had a 69.

Green has missed four cuts in 14 events this year and is ranked 94th, but he had only one bogey Friday, when maintaining balance was the right call. Four players are tied for third at 141: Sean O'Hair, Peter Lonard, Carl Pettersson and Rod Pampling. Tom Pernice, who had a 68, and Chris DiMarco, who slumped to a 74, are three shots behind Mickelson.

Woods took the mystery out of the cut line &

which was at five-over 149 &

when he two-putted from 66 feet to birdie the 16th. He said he didn't hit the ball that well and didn't make enough putts. He blamed his problems on the greens on his inability to correctly gauge their speeds.

"I just need to play better than I am playing right now," he said. "I just need to shoot some good rounds. I can't afford to make the mistakes that I've made. Yesterday I had (three) two-putts. For 36 holes, I've only made two birdies. Not very good."

Stephen Ames shot 77-79 and became the first defending champion to miss the weekend in 13 years, since Nick Price in 1994.

Not everyone found Sawgrass as punishing, certainly not as tough as opening day. Steve Lowery had a 66 and moved from a tie from 107th to a tie for 16th.

And Jose Maria Olazabal, in the fourth group, also ripped off a 66, after his 78 in the first round. So the obvious question was, what was the difference?

"Twelve strokes," Olazabal said.

He had four straight birdies after making the turn, which helped his frame of mind after a bogey at his first hole.

"I was looking to that long flight back home, to be honest," he said. "It didn't look very good."

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