Price alone in front in back-to-back quest

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TULSA, Okla. -- He is the most dominant player in a group that has taken over the sport, a favorite to win nearly every time he tees it up. Clearly, he is the hottest player in the world right now and, quite possibly, the best.

Forget about the other foreign-born players who have bigger names and more lucrative endorsement contracts. Reigning British Open champion Nick Price might not get the attention of Greg Norman or have the power of reigning U.S. Open champion Ernie Els.

All he does is win.

Looking to become the first player since Tom Watson in 1982 to capture back-to-back major championships, Price went from sharing the first-round lead in the 76th PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club to padding it to tournament record proportions.

With a bogey-free 5-under par 65 yesterday and a two-round total of 8-under 132, Price leads by five shots over three players, all Americans: Jay Haas, who shot a 4-under 66, as well as Corey Pavin and former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, both of whom shot 67s.

The previous record for leading at the halfway point was four shots, most recently by Norman in 1986, with all four players who led by that much eventually losing. Price, whose British victory was his fourth this year, isn't so much aware of the PGA record books as he is of real life on the PGA Tour.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure on the weekend," said Price, 37, who grew up in Zimbabwe and now lives in Orlando, Fla. "A lot of people I've spoken to already assume I'm going to win. There's an awful lot of golf left to be played. But I've put myself in a good position."

Pavin thought he had put himself into contention with a 67 yesterday but wound up losing ground after starting the round three shots behind Price and Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, who fell out of the hunt with a 76.

"I don't know what's going to slow Nick down," said Pavin, 34, considered by many to be the best player in the world not to have won a major. "It's a lot of pressure leading a major championship and Nick has been there before, and that's going to help him a lot. He's certainly not the one I would want ahead of me."

Blaine McCallister, whose 6-under-par 64 was one shot off Raymond Floyd's course record, doesn't sound optimistic either. Tied with reigning Masters champion Jose-Maria Olazabal of Spain and John Cook at 2-under 138, McCallister said: "He's playing at a different level of golf. He's taken it up a notch. I don't know how he could do that. You get a guy in that kind of situation with that kind of ability as a Nick Price, he's going to be tough to catch."

It has been this way for a while. Going back to his first major championship, in the 1992 PGA at Bellerive in St. Louis, Price has won 15 tournaments and finished in the top three in 25 other events. It has turned a respectable career into a remarkable one.

And it has given Price, at least for now, the unofficial title of the world's best player. It's a position he covets and, unlike some who have tried to carry the burden -- most notably Norman and Fred Couples -- he seems comfortable doing it. He's just not quite sure it's totally deserving.

"I think over the last two years I've been one of the three best players in the world," said Price, one of the most gracious players on tour. "I wouldn't like to single myself out. But Greg's played awfully well the last three years, and I'd rather put us together in a group. . . . I really want to be [No. 1]. It's not a question of whether I want to be. It's just a question of whether I'll be able to do it."

Price credits his success during the past two years to a number of factors: being more comfortable with the mechanics taught him by boy hood friend and world-renowned swing guru David Leadbetter; a more consistent short game, especially his putting; and a better mental state, thanks in part to his work with University of Virginia sports psychologist Bob Rotella.

And, perhaps, most significantly, the confidence that comes from winning.

"There's no value you can put on confidence," he said. "When you have someone who's confident, they're capable of doing anything."

Like making back-to-back par saves that closed out the front nine yesterday. On the 215-yard eighth hole, Price made a 10-footer after hitting short of the green. After his approach on the 374-yard ninth hit the front of the green and spun 15 feet below, Price hit the flagstick with a pop-up wedge shot with the ball stopping 18 inches from the cup.

"That really set me up," he said.

For a 15-foot birdie at the 376-yard 10th. For a three-footer for birdie at the 448-yard 12th. For a 10-footer for birdie at the 468-yard 16th. For his fifth straight round, as well as the seventh in the past eight, in the 60s. And, perhaps, for his third major title and second straight this year.

Price was asked when he last had led by as many strokes at the halfway point.

"The million-dollar Sun City tournament in South Africa last year," he said.

And what happened?

"I won by 12," Price said.

NOTES: Playing in his record 37th straight -- and last -- PGA Championship, Arnold Palmer missed the cut by eight shots at 79-74153. But Palmer left to a standing ovation after making a 25-footer to save par on the final hole. . . . Defending champion Paul Azinger missed the cut for the second straight time since returning to the tour from his eight-month battle with cancer, shooting 75-74149. . . . Also missing the cut was 1991 PGA champion John Daly, who shot a pair of 73s. . . . Former University of Maryland coach Fred Funk recovered from an opening-round 76 with a 1-under 69 to make the cut at 5-over 145. Also making the cut was former Woodmont CC pro Bob

Boyd, who was at 3-over 143 after a 1-over 71.

PGA CHAMPIONSHIP

The leader . . .

Nick Price ............ 67-65132

. . . and selected followers

Corey Pavin ........... 70-67137

Jay Haas .............. 71-66137

Ben Crenshaw .......... 70-67137

Blaine McCallister .... 74-64138

Jose-Maria Olazabal ... 72-66138

John Cook ............. 71-67138

Ernie Els ............. 68-71139

Gil Morgan ............ 71-68139

Tom Kite .............. 72-68140

Craig Stadler ......... 70-70140

Ian Woosnam ........... 68-72140

Nick Faldo ............ 73-67140

Greg Norman ........... 71-69140

Tom Watson ............ 69-72141

Lanny Wadkins ......... 69-73142

Fred Couples .......... 68-74142

Donnie Hammond ........ 74-69143

Fred Funk ............. 76-69145

# Complete scores: 8C

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