AZINGER leads, but Singh, Woods, Garcia in close pursuit

Saturday, June 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) _ Twice in its 25 years, the Memorial Tournament has been shortened to 54 holes by inclement weather.

If it happens a third time, two-time defending champion Tiger Woods is in position to overtake former Memorial winners Paul Azinger and Vijay Singh.

``From what I've been told, the weather's not supposed to be good, and we don't know if it's going to be a 54-hole event or not,'' Woods said after finishing a 69 Friday in near darkness, leaving him 2 shots back of Azinger and 1 behind Singh through two rounds of the Memorial. ``I needed to get myself into position where I didn't have too many shots to make up if it was a 54-hole event.''

Azinger, who won the 1993 Memorial by holing a bunker shot on the 72nd green, followed a first-round 68 with a 5-under-par 67 to stand at 9-under 135. Singh, winner of the last Memorial to be shortened to 54 holes in 1997, had the day's lowest round with a 66 and was a shot back at 136.

Woods, Chris Smith and Sergio Garcia were at 135.

Garcia, who won his first tour event two weeks ago at the Colonial, didn't mind that he would be grouped with Woods in the third round.

Told he wouldn't have to look far to keep an eye on Woods, Garcia grinned and said, ``He won't have to look far to know what I'm doing, too.''

A two-hour suspension of play Friday morning because of a downpour prevented three players from completing their second rounds. They were scheduled to finish on Saturday morning _ just about the time more rain is expected. After the cut, the field will go off in threesomes from the first and 10th tees to try to get the third round completed.

Azinger soared to the top spot by stringing together five birdies down the stretch. None of his birdie putts were longer than 12 feet.

``I hit my irons laser-beam accurate,'' he said. ``To keep playing well, I'm going to have to hit a few more fairways. I still have some work to do. I'm not totally dialed in, but it was obviously very good.''

Singh had six birdies and credited his irons.

``I've been working on my irons for the last few weeks,'' he said. ``It's good to see them going close to the holes again.''

A 5 1/2-hour round drained Woods physically and tested his mental stamina.

``It takes an inordinate amount of patience,'' he said. ``It's going to be a long day and you know that your rhythm is not going to be your normal pace. You're going to have to wait on a lot of shots. You're going to have some holdups. It's just not easy.''

Still, Woods overcame another bogey at the third hole _ he double-bogeyed it in the opening round. He capped his 69 with a 10-foot birdie putt at the 17th.

Garcia birdied three of the last four holes and felt he had to make a late surge to stay in contention.

``I had to put a good finish on,'' he said. ``I tried to put myself in a good position. I think I'm right there.''

Smith shot a 66 to share the first-round lead with Scott Verplank, who played college ball at Oklahoma State University. He bogeyed the first two holes Friday, but had two birdies and the rest were pars in his 71.

``I hit two good shots on the first hole and 3-putted and hit two good shots on the second hole and 3-putted,'' Smith said. ``I didn't panic too much.''

Verplank shot a 72 and was at 138 along with Joe Ozaki, Robert Allenby, Jim Furyk and Stuart Appleby.

Tournament founder and host Jack Nicklaus was at 148 after a 73 and was in danger of missing the cut, depending on how the last three players finish the second round.