Stewart in lead at 137 amid shower of birdies


CHASKA, Minn. -- The United States Golf Association tried mightily this year to make sure that Hazeltine did not play with the same ease that Medinah did last year for its Open championship.

The rough was grown higher.

The greens were shaved closer.

The pins were tucked in the most treacherous positions.

Maybe USGA officials should have worked their magic on the weather, somehow keeping the rain from again ruining this usually masochistic little four-day orgy of high scores and short fuses.

For the field at the 91st Open championship, the only thing finer than Medinah is a former cow pasture called Hazeltine. The cows have been replaced by a whole lot of birdies.

"The golf course is playing pretty tame," said Payne Stewart, whose 2-under-par 70 yesterday put him at 7-under 137, one shot ahead of Corey Pavin, former Open champion Scott Simpson and Nolan Henke going into today's third round.

The barrage that began after Thursday's early-afternoon rain continued, along with some early-morning showers. As a result, the leader board was bathed in red, with 19 players under par.

"I really felt when the week started that under par would be

great score, and maybe only one person would be under par," Pavin, the leading money-winner on this year's PGA Tour, said after a 5-under-par 67. "It's a shame in a way to see this. I was looking forward to playing a true Open course."

The soggy fairways and sodden greens have opened the door to a handful of players not known for keeping their emotions under control or for their drives on the fairway. Craig Stadler (69), who was tied at 4-under 140 with Scott Hoch (71) and Fred Couples (70), fits in that category. So does Masters champion Ian Woosnam (68), tied with Jodie Mudd (70) at 141.

Among the biggest -- and self-described -- pretenders is Henke. Despite winning twice in three years on the tour and finishing a respectable 21st in his Open debut two years ago at Oak Hill, Henke exhibited unusual candor by casually admitting that he didn't have much of a chance.

"I guess I could if everybody else broke their legs," said Henke, the first-round co-leader with Stewart. "I've never been in this situation before in a major. It's a big learning experience."

Ask Stewart, who learned about Open pressure the hard way. In 1986 at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, Stewart held a one-shot lead with six holes to play. After watching a birdie chip spin out, Stewart missed a short par putt and fell apart badly down the stretch as veteran Raymond Floyd went home with the hardware.

"Looking back, I admit that I got intimidated by Raymond," said Stewart, now 34. "That's when I used to get intimidated by players. But I don't get intimidated by anybody."

The lesson from that Open disaster paid off handsomely two years ago at the PGA Championship, when Stewart won his first major after Mike Reid bogeyed the last two holes. Considering what Stewart has gone through this year, and how little golf he has played, his performance this week has been downright shocking.

"I'm having a lot of fun this week," said Stewart, who has hit 33 o the first 36 greens in regulation. "Being injured and taking off 10 weeks this year opened my eyes to realizing how important my health is to my career."

Stewart still uses a back brace when he plays and a small neck brace when he sleeps. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with three degenerative discs in his back, and earlier this year he found out that he had one in his neck. It got so bad that he considered changing his first name to Pain.

Stewart is taking all the necessary precautions this week,

including sleeping on the bed his 2-year-old son, Aaron, had used. "I did kick my son out of bed last night," Stewart said yesterday. "The bed he was sleeping in was a lot firmer than the one I was sleeping in. He'll be sleeping with my wife tonight."

For the most part, those in contention at the Open are so laid-back that you might want to check for vital signs. Certainly, nobody can be more nonchalant about the game than Simpson, who won the 1987 Open at Olympic and fell out of the lead last year after a triple-bogey on the next-to-last hole of the third round.

When his tee shot on the par-3 17th dropped into a bunker yesterday, it brought back memories of Medinah. "I knew I wasn't going to make triple," said Simpson, who, like Pavin, bogeyed there to cost him a share of the lead. "Sometimes it works for you, and sometimes it doesn't."

Just ask the USGA. After months of getting this golf course primed for the Open, two days of rain have made Hazeltine more like a well-manicured municipal course. More rain is expected today. Maybe they should take Henke's suggestion: Go out and break a few legs.

NOTES: The cut was made at 3-over 147, two strokes off the Open record set at Oakland Hills in 1985 and equaled last year. Among those missing the cut were two-time Open champion Curtis Strange (74-151), Seve Ballesteros (77-149) and Billy Andrade (75-151), who had won the previous two weeks. Three players, including Greg Norman, withdrew during or before the round.

U.S. Open

The leader . . .

Payne Stewart. . . . . .67-70-137

. . . and followers

Corey Pavin. . .. .. .. 71-67- 138

Nolan Henke. . .. .... 67-71- 138

Scott Simpson. .. .. . 70-68- 138

Scott Hoch. . . .... . 69-71- 140

Fred Couples. . . . . . 70-70- 140

Craig Stadler. . . . . 71-69- 140

Tom Watson. . . .. ... 73-71- 144

Jack Nicklaus. . . . .. 70-76- 146

Complete scores: Page 9C

Leaders' cards

Cards of the leaders after the second round yesterday of the U.S. Open:

Par out:. . . . .. 445 - 344 - 534-36

Stewart. .. . .. . 435 - 334 - 444-34

S. Simpson. . . .. 345 - 335 - 424-33

Pavin. . . . . . . 434 - 334 - 523-31

Henke. . . . . . . 355 - 444 - 533-36

Par in:. . . . . . 454 - 345 - 434-36-72-144

Stewart. . . . . . 454 - 345 - 434-36-70-137

S. Simpson. . . .. 444 - 344 - 444-35-68-138

Pavin. . . . . .. .354 - 345 - 444-36-67-138

Henke. . . . . . . 455 - 244 - 425-35-71-138

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