J.B. Holmes' go-for-it swings have him leading the PGA Championship. PGA Championship leader J.B. Holmes, plus Mickelson and Sergio, brace for tough late-Saturday conditions

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. - Walking off the golf course off a late four-putt, Sergio Garcia swore, "I feel good." Heading to his special sponsor-friendly wheels - a Lincoln Navigator while everyone else in the field uses Buick Enclaves - Phil Mickelson insisted he just had to work on his short game.

Forget, for a moment, the fact that's like Warren Buffett saying he has to work on making more money, or Oprah Winfrey saying she has to work on becoming more popular.

At the PGA Championship, it's all about denial, denial, denial for anyone in contention. At an Oakland Hills Country Club South Course that beat up just about everyone in the second round, especially the first-day leaders who played in the even tougher late afternoon conditions, a little healthy make-believe could turn out to be almost as important as a steady putter.

Admitting how much it's getting to you is seeming like a sure ticket home. See Lee Westwood, Hunter Mahan, Vijay Singh and many others. With J.B. Holmes the only player around par heading into today's third round - and that 1-under is largely thanks to a morning 68 - the PGA Championship is suddenly very much a mind game.

"I don't know what you want me to tell you guys," Mickelson said. "Look, I've got two more rounds to go. I've got to play this thing two more times, and I don't really want to go into whether it's fair or not. Everybody's got to play it."

Everybody still doesn't have a real chance, though. Not even among the 73 who made the plus-eight cut. Holmes leads by one over 2003 British Open champ Ben Curtis, favorite English son Justin Rose and 36-year-old, first-time-major-player Charlie Wi. But there are still 20 players within four shots of the lead, including big names like Henrik Stenson (+1), David Toms (+1), Brandt Snedeker (+2), Angel Cabrera (+2), Sergio Garcia (+2), Aaron Baddeley (+2), Mickelson (+3) and Boo Weekley (+3).

"If you look at the names on the leaderboard, it looks great," Baddeley said. "If you look at how they got there, it still looks ugly."

The big problem for anyone remotely near the top is that they have to play in the afternoon today when the already wicked, swerving Donald Ross greens grow crusty as 10-day-old milk. It's no coincidence that Rose's and Curtis' low-rounds-for-the-championship 67s both came in the morning. Or that the top four names on the leaderboard all played pretty early Friday.

That's not going to be the case today, and guys like Mickelson and Garcia are relishing that.

"The leaders are going to have a harder time (Saturday)," Mickelson said, whose real hard time Friday came with back-to-back bogeys on 14 and 15 in the late sun that killed any momentum. "As the greens get firmer and crustier and bumpier, all of a sudden it's really not going where you expect."

This could make today one of the most important Saturdays in recent majors memory. With the toughening up of the conditions in golf's premier events, it's already become extremely difficult to win on Sunday if you're not in one of the final two groups. And this Saturday figures to an even more spastic scramble than most.

"You have to put yourself right there," Toms said. "It used to be all about Sundays in majors. Now it's all about Saturdays and where you are that night. You don't make charges on a course like this. You hang on."

Especially with the PGA of America setting today's final tee time at 2:45 p.m., just about as late as they possibly could.

Oakmont's ghost reborn

Just how tough is Oakland Hills playing? The world's golfers have taken to comparing it to the setup at Oakmont Country Club for the 2007 U.S. Open, the one that produced more kvetching than any other major in the last 15 years.

After four-putting the par-3 17th to take himself from just one shot out to three out in a few agonizing moments, Garcia swore that all four of those putts could have went in almost anywhere else.

"I four putted without hitting one bad putt," Garcia said. "That's the truth. If I had hit a bad putt, I would tell you."

One way to combat the conditions is to hit a few nearly 400-yard drives. That's what Holmes did with some wind in his second round, leaving even other long bombers shaking their heads at his stats. "He put on an absolute clinic with his driver," Holmes' coach Rick Smith said.

Holmes used his big stick on a whopping 10 holes, far more than most of even the better players in the field, including Mickelson.

"I had been hitting 3-wood (in the first round)," Holmes said, shrugging. "But I looked at the wind and where the bunkers were (in the second round) and thought, 'Why the hell not?'"

Oakland Hills can also work for you if you're not in love with birdies. Curtis ranks extremely low on the PGA Tour's birdies made list every year, which means a monster that has others cringing gets him smiling.

"I make a lot of pars every week anyways," Curtis said. "When you do that in the majors, you're going to be right there. I love tough golf courses."

It's either that or make believe. Or ...

"It's brutal," Snedeker said. "Absolutely brutal. I'm glad to get out of there with what I did."

August 9, 2008

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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