Golf: Lawrie the storm force

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a long, grey and wet day in Akron, Ohio, on Friday and only Payne Stewart should have been surprised that the chief beneficiary of the Aberdonian climate and extended working day was the Open Champion, Paul Lawrie. The man who Stewart has disparagingly described as "the champion that Carnoustie deserved" showed the determined qualities that won him that title by leading the NEC Invitational after a 35-hole day.

After a morning 67 and post-prandial 68, Lawrie shared the lead with Carlos Franco, the Paraguayan who is one of the biggest "overnight" successes that the US Tour has had in years. The discourteous Stewart is two shots further back. If there is a golfing god, he will surely arrange for the scores to mean Ol' Knickerbocker Glory will be paired with Lawrie today.

With most of the attention on Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia playing together for the first time in competition (and finishing tied, two off the lead), Lawrie and Franco quietly worked their way up the leaderboard at Firestone Country Club. For Lawrie it was a long haul. When the storms broke over this course on Thursday afternoon, he had played only his opening tee shot in the $5m World Golf Championship event before play was suspended by storms.

It was a similarly arduous day for Franco; but one somehow doubts he will see it like that. Raised in grinding poverty, he would not call a day among the trimmed lawns of the Firestone Country Club, however many holes one has to a hard day. Any resemblance to Lee Trevino that might suggest, does not, however, extend to his quotes. Speaking in English instead of through a translator, Franco said: "First time, twice winner ... now I say incredible. Every week, more better. No more chance for winning major, but I like this week - $1m prize for the winner."

But before he gets too excited, there is the small matter of overcoming the combined might of the two Ryder Cup sides and other worthies. Phil Mickelson, Hal Sutton and Nick Price were one stroke back at 136, and Woods and Garcia only another shot away.

The two sensations of world golf were paired together just two weeks after that thrilling finish in the PGA Championship. Woods, who finished off a 66 on Friday morning to lead after the first round, could not get anything going with his putter in a second-round 71. His only one-putt birdie came on No 17, after which he mockingly raised his arms to the sky, showing more emotion than he did after winning the PGA.

Garcia was in under the trees, behind the trees, everywhere but inside one of the trees. He still managed an even-par 70 and was tied with Woods at 3 under. But his compatriot the Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, who set the course record in 1990 with a 61, found the torturous side of Firestone on Friday. After completing a 70 in the morning, he had two double bogeys and a triple bogey for an 80.

A discreet veil is also best drawn over some other European performances: Colin Montgomerie's second-round 75, Lee Westwood's 74-72 start, Van de Velde's opening 75 and Darren Clarke's five-over-par total.