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SOUTH AFRICA'S CLARK POSTS A 65 TO REMAIN IN CONTENTION AT PORTER CUP

If pro golf was a team sport, South Africa is the country to which the scouts would flock. Some club would have locked up Rory Sabbatini long before he placed second to Tiger Woods in last year's NCAA Division I Championship. Another franchise would have given Irabu-like money to nail down 6-foot-5 Martin Maritz the moment he stepped off the green after winning the 1995 East Aurora International Junior Masters en route to a scholarship at Tulsa.

And as for South Africa's Tim Clark, he might currently command the biggest contract of them all. Last weekend Clark earned a berth in the Masters (a tradition like no other) by winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. And he isn't letting up. Clark shot a 5-under-par 65 Thursday at Niagara Falls Country Club to draw within three shots of leader Matt Kuchar heading into today's third round of the Porter Cup.

Kuchar, a sophomore-to-be at Georgia Tech, retained the top spot on the leader board by following his record-trying 62 on Wednesday with a 67 that put him at 11-under 129 after 36 holes. Under normal conditions Kuchar's score would have him in runaway position, considering the tournament record is 13-under, set by Robert Gamez, now a PGA Tour regular, in 1989.

However, the conditions through two days have been highly irregular. The winds that typically whip the escarpment have been strangely silent, rendering the greens spongy, receptive and a low iron away from NFCC's trademark monster par-4s. Plus the lack of rain in recent weeks has left the rough as stubbly as a Marine haircut, inviting the world's top amateurs to wield their drivers with impunity.

Following Clark, who was at 132, was mid-amateur and Walker Cup team member John Harris at 133. Harris, who shot 67 Thursday, seems to have his game near top form and would be considered the favorite if the field was graded based on the scales of justice. Harris was runner-up to David Duval in 1992 and runner-up again to Joey Guillion in 1993 after an improbable three putt on the final hole denied his chance at victory.

The low round of the day was a 64 by Tim Mickelson, younger brother of 1990 Porter Cup winner Phil Mickelson, a multiple champion on the PGA Tour. Tim birdied three of the par-3s in a bogey-free round and was at 136.

What Clark has on his side heading into the next two days is the confidence he can get the job done. A junior-to-be at North Carolina State, Clark has won four tournaments for the Wolfpack in addition to his Publinx title. He captured the South African junior crown in 1993. And he has at least a fleeting knowledge of Western New York, having played in the East Aurora IJM that Sabbatini won in 1993.

"Obviously because I've played well I'm still confident," Clark said. "It (a three-shot deficit) is a pretty good position to be in. You can still be aggressive out there. Being a little bit behind, you can go out and try to make a birdie to catch the guy."

Clark can be an infuriating player to watch. Before every shot, be it a drive, an approach or a putt, he swivels his head between the ball and the target as if he were watching a tennis match between an ant and the flagstick.

"Normally when I'm concentrating really hard and wanting to play well . . . that's when you see me become more deliberate and take my time a bit more," Clark said. "It's a good thing for me, really. If I'm not concentrating,I'll be a bit more rushed over my shots. That's what good competition does for you."

It was the search for tournament fields abounding with quality players that led Clark to the states. Clark's introduction to America came the year he played in the Junior Masters. He set up base here 18 months ago and is playing the rugged summer amateur circuit for the first time.

"There just wasn't the competition (in South Africa)," he said. "And there aren't enough tournaments. Coming over here now and having the good competition kind of makes you play better. You set your standards a little higher, which is one of the reasons I came over."

If there's a fault to Clark's game it's his work around the green. He went to a long-necked putter 2 1/2 months ago to better keep the ball on line. Still, he missed a number of putts top players expect to make, especially while shooting a first-round 67. And his short-iron game, although deadly from 40 yards and out, is inconsistent close to the green.

"That's probably my weakness, putting and chipping," he said. "I just got to work on the more delicate shots around the green. Like today, I probably lost three shots (on the short game). So 65 could have been 63 or 62."

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