Donald could give the Heritage the boost it needs if he can claim No. 1.

 

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HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Luke Donald moved a step closer to the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking Friday, shooting a 65 to take a one-stroke lead halfway through The Heritage.

"I guess it's always in the back of your mind," the Englishman said. "It's hard to get away from knowing that with Twitter and Facebook and the media and everything, you obviously know what's at stake."

Donald, who won the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship in February, thinks he can focus on what got him to this point -- steady, unflappable golf.

"I can control where I hit the golf ball, and hopefully, I'll give myself a good shot at it come Sunday," he said.

The Englishman began the round three shots behind Willis and quickly moved in front with five birdies on the front nine. After a bogey on the 10th hole, Donald moved in front again a hole later with a 20-foot birdie putt from the fringe. An 8-footer on the par-5 15th brought his final birdie and he parred in to break 70 for the eighth time in his last nine rounds in the event.

"The last couple of years, I've come here playing reasonably well, where I've had control of the golf ball, which is very key at this place," Donald said.

Donald doesn't want to make too much of the rankings. They're a snapshot of how consistently you've performed over a two-year period, he says. But with his Accenture Match Play Championship win, defeating Kaymer in the final, and finishing fourth in the Masters, does Donald feel like the world's best player?

"Not yet," he said, smiling.

Donald has several capable players close on his tail. Willis closed with a birdie to draw within a stroke, while Furyk continued his strong play at Harbour Town with a bogey-free outing.

"It seems like when I play well, I play really well here," Furyk said. "And I think it's a little bit of testament to the golf course. I really like it here."

U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, ranked fifth in the world, was five shots behind after a 69. No. 10 Matt Kuchar shot a 72 to fall into a tie for 43rd, eight shots in back of Donald.Ernie Els, 15th in the rankings, missed the cut with rounds of 75 and 78, his worst performance in 12 career trips to the Heritage. Els switched to a belly putter this week and struggled on the greens with 59 putts. He also failed to make a birdie Friday.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.


Tiger Woods Get all the latest news, highlights and commentary about the world's most talked about golfer on ESPN.com. Tiger Tracker

Woods, 35, has now gone 17 months since his last victory at the 2009 Australian Masters.

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McIlroy (-12) Stays Strong

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Seven strokes and 14 years separate Woods from McIlroy. A birdie by McIlroy on No. 17 and a bogey by Woods on No. 18 turned the possible -- a Sunday charge to overtake the leader -- to the near impossible.

Of course, don't tell Woods this. Asked if he could still win the tournament, Woods didn't hesitate.

"Absolutely," he said, hands on hips.

Woods must have been channeling his inner Nick Faldo when he said it. Or maybe he was overcome by Saturday's stifling heat and humidity.

Yes, in 1996 Greg Norman began the final round of the Masters with a six-stroke lead. And he lost by five shots to Faldo.

But McIlroy hasn't been Larry Mized by this place. Norman had the memories of Mize and that crazy, do-you-believe-in-miracles 1987 playoff chip-in still rattling around in his brain. McIlroy doesn't have that thick of scar tissue.

Nineteen of the last 20 Masters winners have come from the last Sunday pairing. McIlroy is in it, Woods isn't.

Woods is tied for ninth, meaning he'd have to high jump over 12 other players to take the lead. Not going to happen. His game hasn't recovered from swing surgery yet.

But he's close. Achingly close. Not win-a-fifth-Masters close, but good enough to stick it to Ian Poulter, who said Woods wouldn't even finish in the top five.

"I had a two three-putts in there," said Woods, who ended a streak of 16 rounds of par or better at Augusta National. "And I had a lot of beautiful putts that didn't go in. I could have easily been 3, 4, 5 under par."

Instead, he was 2 over for the day and lost more ground to McIlroy. His first shot of the day -- a perfect 3-wood that split the spine of the No. 1 fairway -- settled into a divot. His birdie putt on No. 5 stopped at the edge of the cup, took a glance down and said, "No, thank you, I'm afraid of the dark." Par.

As usual, he lost his annual fistfight with the par-4 11th hole. He bogeyed it Thursday, bogeyed it Saturday and now has exactly one birdie there in the last 11 years. The hole is called "White Dogwood." Woods, after pulling his putt on a 2½-footer, would like to rename it, "Green Death."

He laughed derisively at his tee shot on No. 13 (even though it ended up OK). He asked, "How far did that go?" after his second shot sailed on him No. 14. He three-putted the usual birdie-friendly 15th. He was under a tree on No. 17. And he bogeyed No. 18.

"I swung the club well all day," he said. "That wasn't the problem. Like I said, two three-putts and a bunch of putts that looked like they were going to go in. I just didn't make anything on the greens."

To all those who say Woods won't win a major this year -- or win anything this year -- it might be time to tap the delete button on those predictions. Woods is nearer a breakthrough than anyone realized.

I say this with a straight face. I say it despite knowing that Woods was eight strokes worse Saturday than he was Friday, when he shot 66.

But the swings look less mechanical than they had from Bay Hill or Doral. For huge chunks of the first three days of this tournament, Woods appeared to be playing golf, rather than giving himself on-course lessons.

This is the course he knows best. And in the last six years, he's finished no lower than sixth. So a Sunday run to Top Five Land is a probability, not a possibility.

He won't win, but he'll add to his confidence. And these days, that matters.

"I've got to go out there and put together a good round [Sunday] and see what happens," he said.

McIlroy is going to happen Sunday. But one of these majors -- and soon -- Woods is going to happen too.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press Courtesy of AP, ESPN, and PlayonGolf.com
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Augusta anticipation at halfway mark

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2. Tiger Can't Win This Thing, Can He?

A Woods confidante told me Friday morning that Tiger was thrilled with the way he was playing. Didn't matter that he had shot 71 in the first round. He was thrilled with his ball striking and, more important, his putting.

Well, hello -- a Friday round of 66. Does that work?

He was six strokes off the lead after Day1, but is only three back after Day 2. Think that will get somone's attention?

Uh, it got mine. I still don't think he's winning a fifth green jacket this week, but his putter might have other ideas. He sank lots of keepers on Friday and had a nice little bounce in his step.

Yes, I know: I wrote on Tuesday that you'd be wasting your money to put a wager on Tiger to win. Woods didn't get that memo. Or maybe he did. Anyway, the comeback kid spent most of the afternoon pinching the bill of his cap to the applause. In fact, he got a standing O as he walked up to the 18th green.

And then made his birdie putt!

Tiger is at T-3, with K.J. Choi. Why that matters: no Masters champion in the past 10 years has been outside the top five through 36 holes.

A Freddie/Tiger final pairing on Sunday? Or a Tiger/Rory pairing?

Oh, to dream.

3. Couples Can't Win This Thing, Can He?

He's AARP-ish old, but still Boom-Boom long. He's also a bit of a medical sandbagger.

Earlier in the week, Couples made it sound like he'd be nothing more than a ceremonial golfer here, like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. But Arnie and Jack didn't get some timely medical assistance. The result: Couples' golf game isn't feeling any pain.

"It would be the biggest upset in golf history," said Couples, who won here in 1992.

What would he do if pulled off the upset?

"Retiring," he said. "Gone."

Don't laugh. He finished sixth last year and T-3 in 2006.

I'm all for great stories, so I'm rooting for Couples. But I'm also realistic. I don't think his back or his game holds up.

And I'd love to be wrong.

4. Young Guys Alert

Halfway leader Rory McIlroy and his Saturday playing partner, Day, are a combined 18-under. They're also a combined seven years under Couples' age.

Anybody who thinks McIlroy will enter the witness protection program this weekend hasn't been paying attention. His swing should be the PGA Tour logo. And he's learned from his experiences at the British Open and at the PGA Championship.

Day almost looks like he has a pulse. And nobody hits it as pure as Day does. This is his first Masters, so who knows how he'll hold up. His past three tournaments: T-45, T-51 and MC.

And maybe here is where I mention that 22-year-old Rickie Fowler is 5-under. His outfits are 10-under.

5. The Invisible Man

Everybody was talking about Day's second-round 64, and with good reason. It was goosebump good.

But only two strokes behind him on the leaderboard is the other Aussie, Geoff Ogilvy. Unlike Day, Ogilvy owns a major win -- the 2006 U.S. Open (he beat Mickelson after Phil's mental meltdown on No. 18).

No Australian has ever won a Masters. Day and Tiger made all the news Friday, but Ogilvy, who said earlier in the week that he liked how his game was coming around, could make the news Sunday.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press Courtesy of AP, ESPN, and PlayonGolf.com
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Impressive Day For McIlroy

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Chubby Chandler chuckled telling the story, shaking his head at the same time.

Rory McIlroy talks about his opening round 65 (-7) at The Masters

It was the night before the first round of the Masters, a moment players have been pointing toward for days, weeks, months, and one of his prized clients chose to play football in the Augusta streets with his buddies.

"Your football, not our football," Chandler said, knowing that his audience incorrectly assumed Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy was kicking a soccer ball around. "They were slinging it ... passing it there and back. Then a little old lady came and -- off you go."

Apparently, McIlroy and his friends were making too much noise in front of their rented home, and out came a neighbor to admonish them.

Instead of pulling the "do you know who I am?" routine, McIlroy apologized -- it was already dark -- and retreated inside, his first-round tee time only about 12 hours away.

Clearly, this is a new way to prepare for major championships.

McIlroy put himself in the mix at his third consecutive major championship Thursday, shooting a 7-under-par 65 to share the 18-hole lead with Spain's Alvaro Quiros. At 21, McIlroy is the youngest player to lead after the first round of the Masters -- breaking the record set by Seve Ballesteros, who was 23 in 1980.

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Mickelson (-20) Wins Houston Open

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HUMBLE, Texas -- Phil Mickelson feels pretty confident about his game heading into the Masters.

The defending champion at Augusta outdueled Scott Verplank on Sunday to win the Houston Open by three shots, his first victory since earning his third green jacket last April.

And it comes with a notable distinction.

The win moved Mickelson's world ranking to No. 3, while Tiger Woods dropped to No. 7. It's the first time Mickelson has been ahead of Woods in the ranking since the week before Woods won the 1997 Masters for his first major championship.

"It feels really good for me to have played well and gained some momentum heading into next week," Mickelson said. "I needed to have a week where I kind of put it together."

The 40-year-old Mickelson shot a 7-under 65, the lowest closing score by a winner this year, to finish at 20 under.

He was 16 under over his final 36 holes, after tying the course record with a 63 on Saturday, his lowest round in two years. He won for the fifth straight time when he's shot 64 or better in at least one of the rounds.

"I've been saying all year, 'I'm playing well, but I'm not getting the scores out of it, and I'm just kind of having a lapse of focus,' " he said. "It was a great week in that regard, and great for getting momentum heading in next week."

Tour rookie and second-round leader Chris Kirk (67) tied Verplank (68) at 17 under.

Lefty is hoping he can repeat some history at Augusta this week. The 39-time tour winner is the last player to win the week prior to a Masters victory, capturing the BellSouth Classic in 2006 before earning his second green jacket. The Houston Open became the run-up event to Augusta in 2007.

While many top players, including Woods and world No. 1 Martin Kaymer sat out this week, Mickelson saw no disadvantage in coming here and trying to win. Anthony Kim won last year and finished third at the Masters.

"I think it's nothing but a plus to be able to gain some momentum," Mickelson said, "especially given that I haven't had the results and the scores that I wanted earlier in the year. It gives me a little bit of momentum."

Verplank, meanwhile, needed a victory just to get to Augusta. The 46-year-old Verplank, with his sore left wrist wrapped in black tape, would've become the fifth-oldest champion in the last five years.

His wrist is weakened by a degenerative bone condition, and it affected his grip Sunday. He was making only his fourth start this year.

"It's nice that I hadn't forgotten how to play," he said. "If you're hurt, you don't have a ton of confidence in your body. It's hard to have confidence in anything."

Verplank earned $519,200 for finishing second, and moved into 14th on the career money list ($26.741 million), passing Retief Goosen and Stuart Appleby. He plans to play in San Antonio in two weeks and at Hilton Head in three.

"That would be ideal," he said, "but I mean, this is the first time I've played two weeks in a row. I hope that I can be ready to play in another week."

By the time Mickelson and Verplank teed off Sunday, the wind was blowing as hard as it had all weekend.

Mickelson ignited a roar from the huge gallery on No. 1, chipping in from behind the green for birdie. He hit errant drives on Nos. 2 and 3, then birdied the par-3 seventh to start his charge.

Verplank kept pace for a while, with birdies on Nos. 8, 10, 12 and 13.

"I was birdieing every other hole," Verplank said, "and I couldn't pull away from the guy."

Lefty tried to use his length advantage over Verplank on the 319-yard 12th, driving onto the front of the green, 66 feet away. He two-putted from there for his fourth straight birdie and his 16th in 30 holes.

They both birdied the par-5 13th, but Verplank three-putted on No. 14, leaving Mickelson alone at the top. Mickelson three-putted the par-5 15th, but then widened the gap for good on the 16th green.

"All in all," Mickelson said, "this was one of the best weeks I've had in a long time, as far as seeing the shot and being able to hit it."

 

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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D.A. Points estimates that he's seen "Caddyshack" more than 5,000 times.

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By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- In fact, he's prone to quote lines from the classic movie more than once during a normal round of golf.

Not Thursday, though. Not when Points was playing with the alter ego of the legendary greenskeeper Carl Spackler himself, comedian Bill Murray, during the first round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

"I don't want him to go, oh great," Points explained. "So I purposely am trying not to use any 'Caddyshack' lines."

Besides, Points was too busy making birdies that propeled him to the top of the leaderboard at 7 under. He shot a 63 at Monterey Peninsula Country Club to tie with Steve Marino, whose 7-under 65 came at Spyglass Hill.

When Points came to the media center to discuss his round, though, all he wanted to do was talk about Murray. He had wanted to play with the actor for years, even dropping hints to Murray's long-time partner, Scott Simpson, and was thrilled on Tuesday when he found out his dream was realized.

"The only other person, like if I got to play with Mr. Palmer or Mr. Nicklaus or Mr. Watson, ... maybe that I could compare," Points said. "That might be a little more exciting. (But) this is a big deal for me."

The two met Tuesday night at a PGA TOUR Wives function hosted by TOMS Shoes. Murray was among the players and celebrities decorating a pair of slip-on shoes to be auctioned off for charity. The two spoke briefly, and Murray headed home. The next day, though, Points' phone rang.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press Courtesy of AP, ESPN, and PlayonGolf.com
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Dustin Johnson still loves Pebble Beach -ESPN GOLF Bob Harig

Dustin Johnson stuggled to a final-round 82 at the U.S. Open last June. But the 26-year-old also has great memories of winning at Pebble Beach each of the last two years.

His 3-shot lead turned into a deficit in what seemed like minutes, a shot at winning a major championship gone with a final-round 82.

Perhaps, in hindsight, it is helpful now to know that Pebble played the part of a beast that day, that a score of 76 would have been good enough to win, that a lot of people -- including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els -- struggled that day.

Or maybe it is the ability to grasp the idea that the game of golf is going to dole out its share of disappointment, even to the very best of players.

Whatever the reasons, Johnson returns to the site of that disappointment this week for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am without so much as a disparaging word about the place or his plight.

"I have no hard feelings at all," Johnson said recently during the event's media day. "It's beautiful here and I've always enjoyed coming back. Even at the Open, I played really well for three days. I just struggled a little bit on the last day. It was a great learning experience, and I take a lot from that week. I'll always enjoy coming back here."

After all, Johnson is the two-time defending champion of the event. And after his disappointing finish at the U.S. Open -- he still tied for eighth -- Johnson bounced back to tie for 14th at the British Open and tied for fifth at the PGA Championship, denied a spot in a playoff by the infamous bunker rules violation that led to a 2-stroke penalty.

That was another blow to overcome, but a month later, Johnson, 26, captured his fourth PGA Tour event when he won the BMW Championship. And then he routed Martin Kaymer --

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"Slowly, I'm regaining the balance that I'd lost."

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Tiger Woods gave a 17-minute interview with ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" program on Thursday morning, discussing the fallout from his personal scandal of the past year. He remained introspective, but not revelatory; articulate, but not impassioned; regretful, but not distraught.

We shouldn't have expected anything more. Nearly a year ago, Tiger Woods' world came crashing down on him -- literally. It was, in Woods' own words Thursday during an interview on ESPN radio, "The best thing that could've happened to me."

That was perhaps the most revealing, or at least telling, statement from Woods in the 25-minute interview, which Woods said he gave -- along with launching a Twitter account and writing a first-person account for Newsweek magazine -- in an effort to connect with the fans.

"That's been the biggest surprise of all is how supportive the fans have been," said Woods, who echoed similar words when he returned to golf at the Masters earlier this year.

"The only way [to rebuild my image] is to come to grips with who I am," he added. "I wasn't happy with who I was. I was doing things morally that inside I knew I shouldn't be doing."

Asked what about what he thinks he learned about himself in the past year, Woods added that he wasn't the person he used to be.

Asked if he's happier now, Woods said, "Infinitely so. I'm more clear about who I am and where I want to go."

Where Woods goes on the golf course in terms of whether or not he breaks Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships remains to be seen.

Woods, who has 14 career major championships, will play one more event this season, his upcoming Chevron World Challenge. If he doesn't win, it will mark the first year since 1995 that he has gone without a victory.

"Bits and pieces" is how Woods described how the swing changes he's been working on with new coach Sean Foley have been coming along.

"The fixes for the misses are a little different than the past," Woods added.

The main priority in Woods' life, however, appear to be his children.

In the Newsweek article, for example, he talked about the joy of bathing his son over hitting another bucket of golf balls in practice.

He wrote: "Slowly, I'm regaining the balance that I'd lost. My healing process is far from complete, but I am beginning to appreciate things I had overlooked before. I'm learning that some victories can mean smiles, not trophies, and that life's most ordinary events can bring joy."

Thursday, Woods re-iterated that, saying his kids are his No. 1 priority and that every day he tries to teach them something, much the way his own late father, Earl, did with him.

Woods added that he'll also tell his children the "absolute truth" when it comes time to explaining the events of the past year.

Said Woods: "My dad always said that love is a given, but trust and respect are earned."

That's exactly what Woods is hoping to continue to earn himself

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press Courtesy of AP, ESPN, PGATOUR and PlayonGolf.com
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