CROMWELL, Conn. (AP) _ Darron Stiles made a 10-foot birdie putt on his final hole to shake free from the crowded pack in the Buick Championship.
Stiles shot his second straight 4-under 66 on Friday to take a one-stroke lead over Peter Lonard, with 25 players within four strokes of the lead _ including three who have won on the TPC at River Highlands.
Lonard followed his opening 65 with a 68, while former Hartford champions Stewart Cink (65) and Notah Begay III (66) were 6 under along with Scott Verplank (69) and Todd Fischer (68). Another former champ, Brent Geiberger (68), was in a group of six at 5 under.
``I'm not playing those guys. I'm playing the golf course,'' Stiles said. ``Whoever beats the golf course the best over those 36 holes is going to win.''
Stiles is looking for his first PGA Tour win since joining the tour in 2003. He was the 36-hole leader last month in Memphis en route to a tie for 22nd.
One off the lead to begin the round Friday, Stiles was even through nine holes then birdied the first three holes after the turn. He tied Lonard at 7 under with a birdie on the par-4, 429-yard fourth hole, his 12th after starting on the back nine. Stiles hit his approach from 147 yards to 6 inches and tapped in for birdie.
``I think in Memphis I got ahead of myself and my brain,'' Stiles said. ``And since then I've realized that you really can't do that.''
Lonard had one birdie through the first eight holes, and made his only bogey on the par-4, 406-yard ninth hole. Until then, the Australian said he thought he was cruising along.
``I was thinking, `You beauty, it's going in the hole,''' Lonard said. ``The next thing I'm removing it from a fold-up chair. Outside of that shot I was really happy.''
Cink had a bogey-free round. His win here in 1997 was his first on tour he's picked up three more since then. Although the course hasn't changed much since Cink's win, his game and the game in general has. So has the payday. Cink earned $270,000 for the win. Sunday's winner will pocket $792,000.
``It's just been a more aggressive style of play out here than it used to be with the distance that everybody's gained,'' Cink said. ``This course is one of the courses that has changed very little since the players really started bombing it. I remember when even par was considered to be a good score on this course.''
On Friday, even par was the cut line and 73 players from the field of 156 advanced to weekend play. Among the notables sent packing were defending champ Brad Faxon (5 over), Paul Azinger (3 over) and Jerry Kelly (11 over).
Begay, whose last tour win was at Hartford in 2000, has struggled ever since with chronic back pain because of an injured disk. He has been in only four tour events this season and has missed every cut. His 66 has him back in contention and he said reliving the 2000 win here has helped him get through the pain.
``I'm kind of forced to go through those memory banks, and literally every hole I'm walking out here I'm trying to remember where did I hit it in 2000 and how did it make me feel,'' Begay said. ``It's allowed me to stay calm.''
What Begay did at River Highlands is still part of the record books. His 20-under 260 total remains the tournament record since the event moved from the nearby Wethersfield Country Club to Cromwell. The victory was his second straight that season and the only other back-to-back winner on tour that year was his former Stanford teammate, Tiger Woods.
Just getting loose enough to swing a club means nearly an hour of stretching and riding the stationary bike for Begay. He's had 114 tour starts since his last win and despite the pain and setbacks, the 33-year-old Begay stays positive. Because of the tour, he's been able to start several programs for children on his reservation in New Mexico.
``I don't need to have a good resume on the golf course to be a positive member of my community,'' Begay said.