A back-nine 30 lifted Xander Schauffele into the sole lead at the halfway stage at TPC Scottsdale, while Steve Stricker added a 66 to his opening 65 to keep his hopes alive of becoming the oldest winner in PGA Tour history
By Keith Jackson
Xander Schauffele jumped into the outright lead as Steve Stricker stayed in contention for a shot at PGA Tour history at the halfway stage of the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Schauffele played the last seven holes in six under par at TPC Scottsdale, capping a 64 with an improbable birdie at the last to move to 12 under and one ahead of Stricker and Keegan Bradley, while Jordan Spieth continued his encouraging resurgence with back-to-back 67s.
Spieth goes into the weekend four shots back, while Rory McIlroy again had to dig deep following an early error and fired a 67 to make the halfway cut with a couple of shots to spare, although he remains seven adrift of Schauffele, his playing partner for the first two days in the Arizona sunshine.
Schauffele was just one under for the second day after 11 uneventful holes, but a 25-foot putt for birdie at the 12th sparked an outstanding burst of scoring, with further birdies at 13 and 14 followed by an eagle at the long 15th, where he found the heart of the green in two and dropped another putt from outside 20 feet.
The world No 4 missed a great chance to extend his run at 17 and then pulled his drive into the sand to the left of the final fairway, but he clipped a sublime second to four feet and rattled in the putt to ensure sole possession of the lead.
“That’s what the team and I talk about, just getting back to the old mentality where I am more patient,” he said. “I don’t push as much, kind of let the round come to me.
“If you’re playing well, if I try and force things sometimes it works out, but sometimes it doesn’t. So try and kind of stay in our lane and keep doing what we’re doing.”
While Schauffele is bidding for his first full-field victory on the PGA Tour in over two years, Stricker enhanced his chances of a first title since January 2012, and a win on Sunday would see him surpass Sam Snead as the oldest player to land a PGA Tour title.
The 53-year-old showed his opening 65 was no flash in the pan as he continued to plot his way cautiously and effectively around the Scottsdale layout, covering the back nine in a fairly stress-free 32 before picking up further shots at the third and seventh.
The US Ryder Cup captain found the middle of the fairway at the ninth, but a poorly-struck eight-iron found the front bunker and he needed three to get down to card his only bogey of the day, not that he was letting that finish bother him as he looked forward to a leisurely Saturday morning and a late tee time.
“I haven’t been in this position for quite some time out here,” he said after signing for a 66. “This is why we’re here, to play at this stage, at this level. So, it felt good to get in there and to start the way I did today.”
And he remained realistic about his chances of surpassing Snead’s long-standing record, adding: “I know it’s a long shot, and I’ve got to play my very best, just like anybody else does out here.
“But you know, I’ve been there. I’ve won a few times out on this Tour and I know what it takes, although it’s been a while. It would be fun to see how I handle it if I do get that opportunity.”
Bradley birdied the first four holes and got to seven under for the day, and 12 under for the tournament, after 14, but he blocked his second at the long 15th into water and ran up a disappointing six before parring safely in without further alarm to return a 65.
Spieth hit nine more fairways than he did in round one and got a 32-foot putt to drop for eagle at the third, but despite his increased accuracy off the tee he was unable to better his opening 67 which leaves him four behind the leader.
He was joined on eight under by another former world No 1 in Brooks Koepka, who carded a six-birdie 66 to make the halfway cut for the first time in four starts, while Jon Rahm lost ground on the leaders after a 69.
Rahm is on five under alongside McIlroy, who extended his streak of successful cuts made to 24 PGA Tour events, although he remains troubled by the mistakes that frustrated him in Abu Dhabi and at Torrey Pines last week.
McIlroy was flirting with an early exit when he bogeyed the second, but he got the shot back at the third and then made three birdies in a row to cap an outward 32 before pulling off an incredible par save at the 11th, where his drive found the cactus bushes and forced him to take a penalty drop.
He hammered a bold third onto the green and would have settled for a two-putt bogey, but his 40-footer hit the back of the cup and dropped south, although he struggled to take full advantage of his reprieve until he birdied the par-five 15th only to pull a short putt for par at 16.
A good up-and-down at 17 yielded another birdie, and he scrambled par from a greenside bunker at the last to stay at five under along with Rahm and Scotland’s Russell Knox (69).