LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Russ Cochran is quiet, tenacious, left-handed and, oh yeah, he's from Kentucky.
Yesterday, Cochran, 37, played his best round of the year, perhaps the round of his life, to take the lead after 54 holes of the PGA Championship and give the massive crowds another reason to hoot and holler over the genteel game of golf.
Cochran, of Paducah, Ky., established a course record with a 7-under-par 65 to complete three trips around the Valhalla Golf Club with an 11-under 205 total and a two-stroke lead over Mark Brooks and Vijay Singh.
Brooks, who holed out his second shot on the par-4 15th for eagle, and Singh each carded a 69 to finish at 207. Nick Price and Steve Elkington, who have combined to win the PGA in three of the previous four years, were tied for fourth at 208 with Phil Mickelson, the leader after two rounds.
Elkington, the defending champion, shot a 67 and Price a 69. Mickelson played his last eight holes in 4-over par, including a double bogey at the par-4 13th, for a 74.
As recently as two weeks ago, Cochran, a one-time winner in 14 PGA tour seasons, didn't know whether he would even be here. He didn't become eligible for the PGA until his second-place finish in the CVS Charity Classic on July 28 gave him enough money to squeeze into the top 70 for the 12-month period that ended with the CVS event. Now, he's breaking course records.
Cochran calmly and confidently went the entire day without a bogey. He was spurred by enthusiastic galleries, but is being careful not to get too carried away.
"First of all, I'm trying not to get too involved in it," he said. "This crowd out here is probably consistent with a UK [University of Kentucky] basketball game. They're really pumped up, really excited. I feel that energy.
"But at the same time, I think when things are going well you can feed off it. As long as you stay calm enough, it really, really helps you. I think what you need to guard against a little bit is when things aren't going so well and you're struggling, and you've got to be careful that you don't press and try to get it back right away."
Cochran, who teed off more than an hour before Mickelson, tied him for the lead at No. 18 with his seventh and final birdie of the day. Then, sitting on the sidelines, he took over first place when Mickelson stumbled coming in.
Mickelson held a four-stroke lead after seven holes, but bogeys at the eighth and 11th holes dropped him into the tie. His approach shot to the island green at No. 13 found the water and he double-bogeyed there. He missed a short putt at No. 15 for another bogey.
The field is bunched behind the trio of Mickelson, Price and Elkington. Greg Norman showed some resilience with birdies on the final three holes to join first-round leader Kenny Perry and Justin Leonard among a five-player group at 209.
A victory today for Cochran would highlight a remarkable comeback story. He missed nearly three months last year because of a disk problem in his neck, and ended up $696 short of the amount he needed to retain his tour card for 1996.
Cochran regained his tour card with a good showing in the PGA qualifying tournament, but continued to struggle. He made only five cuts in the first 17 tournaments and expected to be watching the PGA from home.
"I had pretty much hit bottom," he said.
But after working with his caddie, Fred Sanders, an old friend, on some changes with his putting and his confidence, Cochran has come around. He has won nearly $155,000 in the last three weeks to climb to No. 63 on the money list.
"We just tried to make a couple of changes here and there," he said. "I think, even though we didn't see any real improvement right away, I feel like those five or six weeks where we really worked hard at it, it might be coming to pay off a little bit."
Cochran birdied four of the first six holes yesterday and three of the final six. He finished by sinking an eight-footer for a saving par at the 17th, then knocking in a 2 1/2 -footer for birdie at 18.
However, with all the great rounds by Cochran, Brooks, Singh and Elkington, the man probably most feared is Price, the PGA champion in 1992 and 1994.
Price, looking to win one for Jeff "Squeeky" Medlen, his leukemia-stricken caddie, went on a three-birdie run early and later got to 9 under, but he struggled on the final seven holes.
The leader . . .
Russ Cochran .. .. ..68-72-65205
. . . and selected followers
Mark Brooks .. .. ...68-70-69207
Vijay Singh .. .. ...69-69-69207
Nick Price .. .. .. .68-71-69208
Phil Mickelson .. ...67-67-74208
S. Elkington .. .. ..67-74-67208
Greg Norman .. .. ...68-72-69209
Kenny Perry .. .. ...66-72-71209
J. Leonard .. .. .. .71-66-72209
) Complete scores, Page 12C
Pub Date: 8/11/96