McDowell overcomes bush excursion to lead at Sun City

Graeme McDowell had an unwanted safari on the 14th at Gary Player Country Club on Friday, but he put the excursion into the bush behind him with a five-under-par 67 to take the halfway lead of the Nedbank Golf Challenge.

He pulled his tee shot on the 550-metre (601-yard) par five into the thick rough left of the bordering cart-path and it took two lusty hacks to free his ball from the trouble. Then his fourth leaked right and long and he played out of the bunker to six feet from the pin.

“The second shot can only be described as an air shot, really,” he said. “My ball was sitting on a rock, and I contacted it about an inch behind the ball, hit the rock and my club just bounced right over the top of the ball.”

The inevitable two-putt from six feet irked him, but he kept his head, and two great birdie putts – on the par-three 16th and on the 18th – got him back to where he was before the bushwhacking derailed a train which has looked increasingly unstoppable all week.

He was particularly impressive around the turn, with three birdies in a row from nine to 11.

The good scoring comes from a healthy respect for the course: “There is so much trouble lurking on this golf course,” he said. “You’ve got to be really decisive off the tee – the second you start steering, you get into big trouble.”

He had behind him a threatening gathering, including the lanky Swede Robert Karlsson, who came third in his first outing in the 2008 event, Jason Dufner of the United States who pieced together a bogey-free 68, Martin Kaymer, whose eagle on 10 propelled him into contention, and defending champion Lee Westwood.

Westwood is playing in his ninth version of the tournament, with a worst finish of seventh to his credit, and he relishes the challenges posed by the course. In the second round, he overcame bogeys on six and 12 in his two-under-par 70 in a typically bulldog display.

Hometown favourite and overnight leader Charl Schwartzel had a day to forget as he seemed unable to buy a birdie – only on the ninth, on which half the players picked up a stroke on the day, did he manage to dip under par.

One of the other players who didn’t make birdie on nine on the day was Darren Clarke, who turned in two-under 34, but it was his closing nine which was the eye-opener.

He made six birdies, a bogey and two double-bogeys on his way in for a scorecard devoid of pars on that homeward nine. But the resultant 69 has him at one-under-par for the tournament, and six shots off the pace with 36 holes to play is not out of contention.

The only man who looks to be out of reach of McDowell was Francesco Molinari, who slumped to a five-over-par 77 in the second round and is five-over for the tournament.

McDowell is a first-timer in the event, a tournament which has been notoriously difficult for debutants to win, with Mark McNulty in 1986 being the last to have done so.

But he has kept his card tidy in the 36 holes he has played so far, with just the double-bogey in the second round and a bogey on the 13th in the opening round to do any damage to an impressive march.

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