As Ernie Els prepared to walk off his final hole of the day, the look of disgust on his face and the velocity with which his putter was tossed toward his golf bag were clear signals that he had squandered far too many birdie opportunities yesterday in the second round of the Booz Allen Classic at Congressional. Then again, Els could take some comfort in knowing that he didn't miss a green or a fairway over his last nine holes and pushed into contention for a possible first victory on the PGA Tour this season.
A mostly pedestrian first-round leader board suddenly took on some glitzy star power when defending champion Adam Scott and Els, the 1997 U.S. Open winner on this course, both came in around the lunch hour with extremely palatable rounds of 4-under 67.
Scott, a 24-year-old Australian listed at No. 8 in the world rankings, was at 7-under 135 through 36 holes, two shots off the lead of 9-under 133 posted by fellow Aussie Robert Allenby. Scott was tied for second place with first-round leader Matt Gogel (72), Steve Elkington (67) and Lee Westwood (69). Els, No. 3 in the world, was at 6-under 136, tied for sixth in a group that included 2003 U.S. Open winner Jim Furyk (69) and three behind Allenby entering what promises to be a wild weekend on the rain-softened course.
Everyone left in the field -- 70 golfers making the cut at 1-under 141 -- will be trying to catch the 33-year-old Allenby, a four-time winner on the tour.
His 65 was the lowest score of the second round and included seven birdie putts inside 10 feet. Gogel, with a course-record 63 Thursday, managed to get to 10 under through his first seven holes, but struggled with three bogeys and no birdies over his last 11.
"It's very difficult to shoot another low round," Gogel said. "But I knew that . . . I should be able to hit more fairways than I did today [7 of 14] and hopefully will do that over the weekend. I know if I can get the ball in the fairway, I'll be a factor."
Several other highly regarded players also moved into position.
Tom Kite, at 55 the oldest player in the field, won this tournament in its first year at the TPC at Avenel in 1987 and was at 69 -- 137 along with Davis Love III (68). Phil Mickelson, fourth in the world and already a three-time winner this season, birdied two of his final three holes and also came in with a 67 that left him at 4-under 138.
"I need to go low this weekend," he said. "But at least I gave myself a chance."
Els gave himself chance after chance over his last nine holes, Congressional's front nine. And while he did convert three birdie opportunities, he had five more birdie putts of 12 feet or less and missed every one, including a five-footer at No. 4, a 10-footer at No. 8 and an eight-footer at No. 9.
"It could have been a little better the last couple of holes," Els said. "But I have to be satisfied with that. Two rounds in the 60s around here is not too bad. I'm playing good, hitting it close the last couple of weeks. It's just a matter of putting everything together. It was almost there today. I'm heading in the right direction."
So, too, was Allenby, who has never finished among the top 10 in four previous appearances in this event. He's also struggled in recent weeks with the most important tools a golfer owns -- his hands. His problems began shortly after the World Match Play tournament in February when he began to develop inflammation in both hands. He's missed the cut in four of his last eight events, and only in the last two weeks has the swelling gone down.
When fellow Aussie Elkington finished up, he deadpanned, "I hope he has some more problems with his hands, at least on the weekend."
Despite his maladies, including a sore knee, Allenby still managed seven birdies and just one bogey on his card and needed only 25 putts on a round that included 11 one-putt greens. He saved pars on his final two holes, making an eight-footer at the 17th and a six-footer at the 18th to preserve his score.
Allenby missed the cut when the U.S. Open was played here in '97, but he and everyone else in the field this week knows that Congressional has been set up to play far less difficult than eight years ago, when Els won with a 4-under total of 276 for 72 holes.
"We're playing a totally different golf course to then," Allenby said. "The golf course is soft. The rough is probably only three inches thick. The greens are really soft. . . . Obviously you've got to hit it in the fairway first. If you hit it in the rough, it makes it hard to not only get close, but even to the green."
Like Allenby and Els, Scott also played in the more advantageous morning session, devoid of any wind or draining sun. He had six birdies and two bogeys on his card and his sweetest shot of the day came at the 437-yard 16th, when he hit an 8-iron from 163 yards out in the fairway to an 18-inch tap-in for his final birdie of the round.
Scott is making only his second appearance at this event, and he clearly seems enamored with the Washington area. He's had six straight rounds in the 60s in the Booz Allen going back to his four-shot triumph over Charles Howell III at the TPC at Avenel in 2004, and he seems as comfortable at Congressional as he did across Persimmon Tree Road a year ago.
"I was excited about playing at Congressional, I heard so many good things," he said, adding that he's again staying in Georgetown, just as he did last year. He said there was "plenty of stuff to do, nice restaurants, shops, so it's certainly a good, fun week for me. I just have a good time here, and fortunately I'm playing some good golf, as well."