ST. LOUIS -- While most of the field seemed stuck somewhere between neutral and reverse, Gene Sauers birdied three of the last six holes yesterday to take a two-stroke lead into the third round of the 74th PGA Championship.
On a Bellerive Country Club course that has asserted itself as a stout and unyielding test, Sauers, the first round co-leader, shot a two-under-par 69 for a 36-hole total of six-under-par 136.
It put him two shots ahead of Nick Faldo, who missed short putts on the final two holes in posting a second-round 70, and left-hander Russ Cochran and Jim Gallagher Jr., who shot a course-record 66.
Behind the leaders, the field began to string out after being bunched after the first round. Steve Richardson of England, who also had a 66, was alone at 139.
Four golfers, including 1987 champion Larry Nelson, were at two-under-par 140, and Brad Faxon and Brian Claar were at 141.
Fred Couples and Bruce Fleisher finished at par 142.
Missing the 36-hole cut of five-over-par 147 were Jack Nicklaus, who missed the cut in three of four major championships for the first time in his career, Arnold Palmer, Ian Woosnam and Curtis Strange.
Bellerive's prodigious length of 7,148 yards began to take its toll, as players found it difficult to put long iron approaches within birdie distance. On some of the biggest greens in golf, the emphasis seemed to be on conservative lag putting more than bold conversions.
"It's pretty long, you can't touch the rough, and it's a tricky golf course with just a bit of wind," Faldo said. "The greens have got a lot of sneaky little breaks, and every one of them seems to be of different texture and a different speed."
For two days, Sauers, 29, winner of two events in nine years on the PGA Tour, has played some of the most solid tee-to-green golf in the field. He has hit 23 of 28 fairways and 25 of the 36 greens in regulation.
Yesterday, he bogeyed the third and fourth holes, but saved the round starting with a 30-foot birdie putt on the 411-yard 14th.
On the 16th, he hit a downwind 4-iron from 222 yards to three feet of the pin and made the putt.
Then, on the 536-yard 17th, Sauers hit a high 3-wood over a pond to within 35 feet and two-putted for another birdie.
"I'm going to go home and try to take some of the pressure off and start a new day [today]," said Sauers, who has never led a major after two rounds or finished one in the top 10."
"I'm pleased with where I'm at," he said. "It's going to be an interesting weekend." Sauers said his approach is to "hit it, find it and go hit it again."
Sauers acknowledged that among the leaders, Faldo would seem to have an advantage because of his five major championships and his superlative play this summer. The British Open champion played nearly flawless golf yesterday, missing only one fairway, the 18th, and failing to convert on several birdie putts within 10 feet.
"Yesterday, I putted well; today I hit the ball well," said Faldo, whose mood was subdued after he finished by failing to get up and down for a birdie on the 17th and missing a five-foot par putt on the 18th.
"If I get both of them right, that's the game plan. If I can maintain what I have, and add a little bit more sparkle, then I should have a good chance."
Playing with Faldo, Couples struggled to a two-over-par 73 that left him within striking distance. Although he was clearly outplayed by Faldo, the Masters champion was not discouraged.
"I'm not disappointed at all," Couples said.
"Now I know why scores were the way they were yesterday. The greens are rock-hard greens and spiked up, so there aren't a lot of birdie chances. And I was a little tentative because of the way I was playing. I need to go practice a little bit and come out tomorrow and putt the way I did yesterday. But I watched Nick play and I think he is going to be tough to beat."
With a victory, Faldo would match his 1990 feat of winning two major championships in a year, a feat that was last
accomplished by Tom Watson in 1982.
The leader . . .
Gene Sauers 67-69136 . . . and selected followers
Russ Cochran 69-69138 Nick Faldo 68-70138 Jim Gallagher Jr. 72-66138 Steven Richardson 73-66139 Craig Stadler 67-72139 Nick Price 70-70140 Gil Morgan 71-69140 Fred Couples 69-73142 Lanny Wadkins 72-71143 Tom Watson 72-71143 John Cook 71-72143 Mark Calcavecchia 74-69143 Ray Floyd 69-75144 Greg Norman 71-74145 Tom Kite 73-73146 Ben Crenshaw 75-71146 Jack Nicklaus 72-78150 Fred Funk 70-82152