NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. — If seeing the putts drop for birdie were not enough, K.J. Choi noticed his gallery growing and getting more excited for him Friday at Aronimink in the AT&T National.
“I started feeling that … I’m working toward a special round,” Choi said.
With five birdies over his last six holes, Choi had a 6-under 64 to match the lowest score in the two years the AT&T National has been played at Aronimink. It gave him a two-shot lead over Chris Riley, Charlie Wi, Justin Leonard and Bo Van Pelt.
Another day of brilliant weather did little to ease the scoring conditions on this classic course in the Philadelphia suburbs. Choi simply made it look easy at the end of the round by keeping it in the fairway and giving himself good looks at birdie. Three of his birdie putts were from about 10 feet or longer, and he closed out his round with a wedge into 16 inches for one last birdie.
Choi, already having a big year with his win at The Players Championship, was at 7-under 133 going into the weekend. He won the inaugural AT&T National in 2007 when it was played at Congressional, so the calendar might be more relevant than the course when it comes to his good play at this event.
Despite the lead, there were plenty of contenders. Twenty players were separated by five shots going into the weekend on a course that can be as tough as it needs to be. The greens received plenty of water to keep them from going over the edge with two days remaining.
“This is a golf course where you can run up a bunch of bogeys,” Wi said after his 66. “You’re not going to lose too many spots if you make par. If you stay patient out here, that’s probably the most important thing.”
Riley also relied on his putter, as he often does, running off three straight birdies late in his round for a 66. Riley is one of the best putters on tour, yet he benched his regular putter for a few years until going back to his old one.
And it’s really an old one.
“It’s a 1970 Ping Anser,” Riley said, making it a club older than he is.
Turns out it belonged to his grandmother, and Riley found it in their garage when he was in college. His grandmother wasn’t playing much golf at the time, so he borrowed it from her.
Riley is 38 and he is trying to go back to his early days on the PGA Tour. He played recently with 22-year-old Rickie Fowler, and watched him step over short putts and ram them back into the cup without thinking about anything else. Riley has been around long enough to realize that some of the putts miss, although he’s trying to care more about the stroke than the results.
So did he play like he was 21 or 38 on Friday?
“Probably 31,” Riley said, which could be classified as a progress.
Van Pelt three-putted his opening hole for the second straight day, then bounced right back with a birdie that he called his most important of the day. He made five more birdies for a 66. More than any one shot, he has kept the golf course in front of him without going sideways — either in the rough off the tee, or on the wrong side of the hole.
Like so many others, he thought the course and the way it was set up was close to perfect, even with greens slightly softer than he expected under the warm sunshine of the afternoon.
“I thought it might bake out more,” he said. “If you’re in the rough, they roll out on the greens. If you’re in the fairway, they’re holding. And that’s ideal.”
As for Aronimink?
“The course has been around for this long and they don’t screw it up,” he said. “They know it’s a good course. They don’t have to show it off. I’m sure it’s this good the rest of the year.”
If there was a surprise in the group at 5-under 135, it might be Leonard. He has struggled mightily this year, and decided after last week to part with his longtime caddie. The bigger change was his putting, which made the game feel a lot easier than it used to.
“I’m glad I played a couple of rounds I can build on,” Leonard said. “I’m playing late on a Saturday, which is nice. It’s been awhile.”
Choi had some separation with his big finish, although so many others were very much in the mix. Charles Howell III birdied his last hole (after back-to-back bogeys) for another 68 and was in the group of four players at 4-under 136.
Adam Scott, who shared the lead after the opening round with Hunter Haas, looked as though he might come undone when he took double bogey on the par-3 14th. His tee shot went into an ugly lie in the rough, and his plan was to get it onto the green and let it roll to the cup. He didn’t quite get it on the green, and three-putted from 45 feet — the putt he made for double bogey was just ov er 4 feet.
He played with Choi and was falling further behind until making two birdies over his final hour to salvage a round of 71, leaving him in the group at 137 that included Fowler (69) and Joe Ogilvie (70).
“Those birdies were really big,” Scott said. “It’s easy to get it stuck in reverse on a course like this. And playing with K.J., the way he was going at the end, it was nice to keep in touch.”
Erik Compton, coming off a Nationwide Tour win last week that all but assured him a spot on the PGA Tour next year, had another 76 and missed the cut by a mile. This was his fifth straight week, a tough stretch for anyone, much less a 31-year-old who already has had two heart transplants. Before leaving, he agreed to spend time visiting with the corporate sponsors.
More surprising was Jim Furyk, who missed the cut for the fourth straight tournament. This comes one year after Furyk captured the FedEx Cup. Not since 1995 has Furyk gone four successive PGA Tour events without making the cut.