By the time he walked onto the 16th green yesterday, Bill Haas had driven the ball so boldly and beautifully, hit so many irons stiff and made so many birdies that one of the fans just outside the ropes shook his head in admiration and muttered, "He can start counting his money now."

Indeed he can. It's one thing to be anointed as the next young star in golf, to be one of the focal points for the Booz Allen Classic before hitting his first official shot as a pro. But ultimately, that fluff has to be validated by performance, and yesterday Haas followed a 2-under-par 69 at the TPC at Avenel with a 6-under 65 that ensured him not only of a paycheck in his first event on the PGA Tour as a professional, but also vaulted him into contention for the title.

Tied for 33rd at the start of the second round early in the morning, Haas was tied for fifth when he left the 18th green after draining a five-foot curler for birdie. And he was practical enough to say about the competition that went off in the afternoon: "I hope the wind picks up and there's a storm brewing out there and guys shoot in the seventies. It won't bother me any."

The storm brewed, causing a delay of nearly two hours that helped Haas lose just two spots. He starts the third round today tied for seventh, six shots behind leader Adam Scott.

Haas tries to be confident without sounding cocky and, yes, admits to thinking about winning the Booz Allen. That would make him the first player to win in his professional debut on tour since Jim Benepe in the 1988 Western Open.

"I can't do anything about [what the players ahead of him shoot in the final two rounds], but I expect to play well and, therefore, expect to win," he said. "I'm not a regular on this tour, [but] I feel like if I play my best golf I can compete out here. If I play my best golf on the weekend, then I should be somewhat close."

The most important goal for Haas is to earn enough money to gain an unlimited number of exemptions for the rest of the season. He has seven exemptions to do it. His keep-going number is the amount of money the 150th ranked player last year mustered. Publicly at least, Haas claims not to know that it's $348,976.

"I try not to think about it," he said. "Just go out and play, try to make top 10s, top 20s, as much money as possible."

Almost certainly, Haas did not know that the 150th-ranked player on tour last year was Mike Grob, who happened to be one of his playing partners in the first two rounds of the Booz Allen and who made the cut at 2-under 140. Grob was enthusiastic about Haas.

"I like that he plays quickly; he decides what he's going to do fast, and he does it," Grob said. "Very impressive."

Haas has the rangy build of someone who might have played strong safety at Wake Forest had he not been so gifted at golf. His swing is pure and powerful, and he was gutsy enough to go at a couple of narrow areas off the tee (at Nos. 13 and 16) and accurate enough to pull it off.

"I think you have to have an aggressive mind-set," he said. "The rest of the field is having 25 tries [to either earn a tour card or keep it]. I get seven; I need to grind every shot and every hole. It will be tough."

"I feel like if I play my best golf I can compete out here," says Bill Haas, watching his approach on second fairway. Haas is six shots back; no player has won his pro debut on tour since 1988.