Curtis, Howell share lead _ with many chasing _ in 84 Lumber Classic

Sunday, September 17th 2006, 7:13 am
By: News On 6

FARMINGTON, Pa. (AP) _ Don't let the colors fool you. Ben Curtis is wearing Steelers black and gold this weekend _ something he probably can't believe he's doing _ but he's the biggest of Cleveland Browns fans.

Maybe that's why winning the 84 Lumber Classic would be extra special for Curtis, even though he's already been a champion once this year on the PGA Tour. After all, he can do something the Browns rarely do by winning in Steelers country.

Curtis, trying to win a lame-duck tournament for the second time this summer, played his third consecutive excellent round on a day the leaderboard never stayed the same for five minutes to share the third-round lead Saturday with former Oklahoma State standout Charles Howell III.

Howell, experiencing a mostly terrible year in which he has changed his swing and his coach, had a 4-under 68 to match Curtis at 12-under 204 for the tournament on the 7,550-yard Mystic Rock course _ the third longest on the PGA Tour. Curtis had his second consecutive 69 after starting with a 66.

Robert Garrigus, the most surprising name among the leaders, had a 68 and was joined by Hunter Mahan and Greg Owen a shot off the lead. Greg Kraft, Bo Van Pelt and Ryan Moore were another shot back at 10-under 206.

Curtis, who has worn a Steelers shirt and cap for three days to fulfill a Reebok endorsement contract, kept his share of the lead by sinking a tough 9-footer for par on the par-3 17th. He had a chance to take the sole lead, but pushed a 13-footer for birdie wide left on the par-4 18th. Earlier, he made putts of 30 feet-plus for birdies on No. 6 and 12.

Those putts drew cheers from the fans _ unlike a couple of years ago, when the former Kent State golfer was booed for wearing Browns gear.

``Is it tough,'' he said, laughing, of dressing up in Steelers colors. ``But it's good to get the home team behind you. It wasn't pretty (being booed), and I'll be wearing black and gold tomorrow.''

Unless wife Candace goes into labor, that is. She is due to deliver their first child in the next week or so and, if he gets the call Sunday morning, Curtis plans to leave without completing his final round.

``I'm just waiting by the phone,'' he said. ``That's our No. 1 priority right now.''

Howell, who has won nearly $12 million on the PGA Tour but is only No. 81 on the money list this year, picked up four strokes in three holes with the best run of the day among the leaders. After consecutive bogeys on Nos. 11 and 12 dropped him to 8 under, he birdied Nos. 14 and 15 and dropped a 20-footer for an eagle 3 on No. 16.

``I hung in there and I have a chance to win,'' said Howell, who hasn't finished in the top 30 since a tie for second at New Orleans in April. ``I've been through my share of swing changes and I've had an iffy year.''

Curiously, Howell is contending for first PGA Tour victory since the 2002 Michelob Championship at a resort, Nemacolin Woodlands, where a golf academy is named for renowned swing coach David Leadbetter. Howell parted ways with Leadbetter before undergoing his latest swing change but decided last month to start working with him again.

``Charles is a guy who's won and probably should win more,'' Mahan said. ``I think we've got a good mix of guys who haven't won yet and who want to win and are very capable of winning and guys who have won.''

While none of the three Ryder Cup players who made the cut were in serious contention, one-quarter of the 81 golfers left have a realistic chance of taking a run at the 84 Lumber's fourth and final championship. The tournament was supposed to move to a more prestigious spot on the PGA Tour calendar in June 2007, but unexpectedly decided to drop off the schedule, opening a slot for a Connecticut tournament.

``It's going to be fun,'' Curtis said. ``There's probably 20 guys and maybe more than that with a legitimate chance to win if they post a good score.''

Curtis has the chance to become the reigning champion for the foreseeable future for not one but two championships. He won the last Booz Allen Classic in late June by leading from the first round to the last, sleeping on the lead for five nights during a rain-delayed tournament that didn't end until a Tuesday.

Garrigus, 165th on the money list, briefly found himself leading by two shots on the back nine. But after being 8 under for the tournament on the par-5 holes alone, he bogeyed Nos. 15 and 16 _ a par-5 _ in succession before regrouping with a birdie on the par-3 17th.

Garrigus' two bogeys came immediately after he glanced at the leaderboard and saw him name atop it, an unaccustomed spot for someone who has yet to have a Top 10 finish.

``It was the coolest thing I've ever seen,'' said Garrigus, whose 19 birdies through three rounds are the most in the field. ``I just really got pumped up.''