Lee Westwood drew on the experience of 24 previous rounds of golf over the demanding Firestone Country Club South Course to force his way into contention for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio.
The 34 year old Englishman added a second round of 71 to his opening 68 for a level par total of 140 at the halfway stage. Westwood leads the European charge for the title which his close friend, Darren Clarke, claimed in 2003.
While Clarke lost touch with the leaders on after a second round 76, Westwood ended a hot, sticky Ohio day in a share of seventh place, five behind the tournament leader, Rory Sabbatini of South Africa.
Sabbatini climbed to six under par with a pair of 67s while Masters Champion Zach Johnson carded the joint best round of the week, a five under par 65, to take possession of second place on 136, two behind the South African.
Tiger Woods, chasing his sixth title at Firestone and his third in succession, posted a level par 70 for a two under total of 138 alongside countrymen Scott Verplank and Kenny Perry in a tie for third place.
Meanwhile Westwood was frustrated by his start and finish in which he dropped three shots to par. Despite those blips, he is one of only eight players under par after 36 holes – a testimony to the quality and difficulty of the Firestone lay-out.
In fact, Paul Casey – who finished on level par 140 despite three spilled shots over the last three holes – went as far as to suggest that the field should stay in Akron next week and play the US PGA Championship at the same venue, such is the quality of the layout.
Westwood, enjoying a trial run with experienced caddie Alastair McLean, had to hole an eight footer on the first to avoid a four putt to start his day, but after another bogey at the next, he settled into a rhythm and birdied the 18th, first and third to keep in touch with Sabbatini and Johnson.
“Anything around 70 is a good score here” observed Westwood, who will be one of the later starters in the third round. “This is very good preparation for next week. It’s a demanding test and the humidity is going to be even greater at Southern Hills, so this week’s course and weather are ideal preparation.
“I will go and do some work on my short game now because that’s where the tournament is going to be won and lost at the weekend.”
Casey, who bogeyed the 16th and double bogeyed the 18th from the trees, was annoyed not to be closer to the lead, having stood at three under with three to play.
He said: “This golf course is brutal. The rough is penal and tough to recover from as I demonstrated at the last. I had no exit through the trees and possibly should have played out backwards. However we carry on. Even par is not completely out of this and if I get it going at the weekend we will see what happens.”
Last year Casey shot 64 in the third round to hold a winning chance going into the final day, before finishing fourth behind Woods.
Like Westwood, he is happy to be tested by Firestone in the few days leading up to the season’s final Major, the US PGA Championship. He commented: “This is a major set-up in its own right and I think it’s fantastic preparation for next week.
“In the past, we’ve felt a bit relaxed coming here after the US PGA but you flip it this side of the Major and it’s great. It really is. There is no better golf course to get your game in shape and be prepared for next week.”
There were some late heroics from the European contingent late in the day as Open Champion Padraig Harrington and Justin Rose of England shot 69 and 72 respectively for a total of 141 – just seven behind the leader.
At one point, both men were spiralling out of contention, but Harrington birdied the 15th and 18th to be one of only three players in the afternoon groupings to break 70. Rose, who dropped to three over, birdied three holes in a row from the 15th to get back to level par before a last hole bogey put him on the same mark as the Irishman.
Rose commented: “I was tested today, I have to admit. I can’t say it was easy. I think a year ago I would have become frustrated and found it hard to turn things around, but that has been a big improvement in my game.
“If you hang around level par there you’re not going to be far away. It’s the kind of golf course where you have to respect the pin placements and to putt really well. If you can eliminate the bogeys, that’s the best strategy.”
Masters Champion Johnson made the most significant early move with that 65. Johnson piled up six birdies and one bogey at a sun-baked, fast-running course and he said: “This golf course is just about getting the ball on the fairway and today my score card showed that I played solid.
"I hit a lot of fairways and my putter started to work. You get it on line and they're going to go in. It's just about hitting those fairways."
The 31 year old from Iowa, who needed only 27 putts, conceded that conditions were more difficult than in the opening round.
"The wind is probably a little more severe," he said. "It was just that I hit the ball a tad more solid today than I did yesterday. Even my misses today were good misses. I can't over-power this golf course and I really can't even attack it, but I can pick it apart."
Sabbatini, delighted with his strong finish, predicted two more 67s would seal him the title. "If I shoot 12 under, I'm winning," the 31 year old South African said after carding five birdies and two bogeys.
"I don't see anybody beating 12 under on this golf course The way I look at it is I'd take even money right now shooting even par on the weekend. The course is only going to get tougher."