Birdies take Howell close to record

Ryder Cup team-mates Paul Casey and Paul McGinley heaped praise on European Order of Merit leader David Howell after the Englishman raced to the front at the TCL Classic on the Chinese resort island of Hainan.

After carding an eight under par round of 64 yesterday, Howell went one better today with a 63 for a combined total of 17 under par - giving Europe's number one a two-shot lead over Australian Andrew Buckle. Casey and McGinley have been left well behind by Howell, with defending champion Casey closest of the two on 11 under at the halfway stage.

Casey said: "Howler is number one on the Order of Merit and he's showed why on the first couple of days - he has played some terrific golf and all credit to him. "He has put in a lot of hard work and it shows how good he is right now. He is the man to beat and hopefully he will slow down a bit."

Casey fired a four under par 68 to add to his 65 from the opening day, although he all-but conceded defeat to Howell with two rounds still to go. "If I can beat the score I shot last year of 22 under I will be happy and we will go from there," he said. "It looks like it will not be good enough at this stage but I can only take care of myself."

Meanwhile, McGinley improved on his opening round by carding a seven under par 65 which took the Irishman to 10 under par for the first two days. "It looks like I was chopping it there compared to Howler," said McGinley, who was paired with the Weybridge-based professional. "It looked like he was getting a birdie at every hole. "I am seven shots back on Howler and that is going to be very difficult to make up on this golf course.

"If the course was tougher it would be reasonable but seven shots and the way he is playing and putting, I cannot see him shooting a poor score. "I think I am going to have to shoot two 62s to catch him. Two of those to have a chance." Howell's round was his best on the European Tour and he fell just short of equalling Ernie Els' record for the lowest score after the first 36 holes, while he was also just shy of the mark for the most birdies in a round with 11.

The 30-year-old, who started at the 10th tee, kicked off in blistering fashion, with birdies on his second, third, fourth and fifth holes before recording two more at his seventh and eighth. Two more at the first and second - his 10th and 11th holes - had him on track to obliterate the course record of 62, set yesterday by American Edward Loar and China's Liang Wen Chong. A bogey at the third - his 12th - slowed his progress and three further birdies were reined in by another dropped shot at his penultimate hole to leave him one off the course mark.

"I'm delighted really," said Howell. "My caddie just gave me a telling off as I was a little disappointed to finish five, five but I have just had my joint best score and my best score two days in a row, so I have got to be happy. "I had a lot of fun out there, played nicely - and it is a lot of fun out there playing that well."

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