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Snedeker all smiles after 73

How tough is Oakmont playing right now? So tough that a rising young player can walk off the 18th green after shooting 73 and be smiling from ear to ear, like a boy who just beat his dad in golf for the first time.

"I can't remember the last time I felt this good about a 73," Brandt Snedeker said after finishing his round late Friday morning. "Probably when I was 12 or 13. I feel like I played a great round of golf today. I was 3-over, but I feel like I shot 65 or 66."

That's the charm of a U.S. Open -- or the horror, depending on your point of view. It twists your perspective of what constitutes a blissful day on the course. If you're going to survive an Open, especially on a monster like Oakmont, you have to modify your definition of success and understand that par is your pal.

Snedeker had just one birdie Friday. He said there was nothing spectacular in his round, unless you're the type who gets goose bumps watching people sink 10-foot putts for par. Still, combined with his opening 71, it put him at 4-over-par 144 after two rounds -- four shots off the lead and very much in contention for a major championship.
That's pretty nice for a 26-year-old in his first full year on the PGA Tour. Snedeker, a native of Nashville, recently went over $1 million in winnings for the year by finishing fifth at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis. He's 43rd on the money list. But this is uncharted territory. Not only did Snedeker make the cut, he has a chance to win the U.S. Open.

"I do," Snedeker said. "I put myself in a position to win and I'm going to give everything I have in my body to win this tournament. And I'm going to enjoy every minute of it. I think the first two days were kind of a walkthrough, where I didn't really realize what was happening. But now I know I'm teeing off Saturday at the U.S. Open."

Snedeker isn't very long off the tee. He hasn't tried to drive the shorter par-4s here, or the long par-3. But he's a resilient player, a grinder who takes delight in recovering from tough situations and saving par. And as Western New York golf fans should know, he is capable of shooting some low numbers.

At the 2003 Porter Cup, Snedeker shot 63 and 62 -- briefly a course record at the Niagara Falls Country Club -- in the first two rounds. But in the final round, he shot a 75. He doubled bogeyed three holes and blew a four-shot lead in the final seven holes. Snedeker finished fourth, and it cost him a place on the Walker Cup team.

Snedeker said he has fond memories of the Porter Cup just the same. He remembers the supportive crowds, the hospitality, the fun he had that week. He told me that, in the end, the collapse made him a better golfer.

"I learned what it feels like to choke," he said, "because that's pretty much what I did. You need those experiences. You need to put yourself in contention and have a chance to win. If you don't win, you need to learn from it. I can still remember it. I can count down my back nine, disaster by disaster."

Snedeker has learned how to deal with unfortunate circumstances on the course. He's a smarter player now, less likely to compound his mistakes. He played three years on the Nationwide Tour and won twice last season. Now he's on the PGA Tour and appreciates every moment. He said his brother, a lawyer, calls every day to remind him how lucky he is.

With a little luck, he might make history this weekend. When Oakmont is finished chewing up the field, someone has to win. Snedeker was thrilled to walk off with a 144 after two rounds. He said he couldn't see anyone breaking par in the afternoon session.

"I think it would be considered one of the best rounds of the year to shoot under-par out there," he said. "The wind is blowing so hard on some of those holes, it's virtually impossible to hit a lot of fairways. The rough is nasty as can be and the greens are as firm and fast as I've ever seen. So you'd have to have an unbelievably good round of putting and ball-striking to even consider breaking par out there today."

He had a good point. Oakmont had its way in the afternoon. Snedeker's 144 looked better and better as the day wore on. When you scanned the leader board, it was remarkable how few of the big names were up there. Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, Davis Love III, Adam Scott, Tiger Woods and Geoff Ogilvy -- Snedeker was ahead of them all. Phil Mickelson didn't even make the cut.

There wasn't a player in the afternoon session who matched Snedeker's feat of going 10 straight holes without a bogey. Now you see why he's so thrilled to be at 144 heading into the third round. Snedeker said 4-over-par will be enough to win the Open.

"I would take 4-over right now and be the happiest man in the world," he said. "I mean, I'd take 6-over and go sit in the clubhouse. I don't see how it can get any easier. I think they've saved a lot of tough pins. The course can get a lot faster, which is scary. The wind is going to continue to blow. People think 10-mile-an-hour winds are no big deal, but out here it's a huge deal. All the greens are exposed, which dries them out 10 times faster than anywhere else. It shrinks the fairways from 25 yards wide to 17-18 yards. So it'll be tough."

Snedeker came here playing well, and he said he usually stays hot for awhile. So he believes he can win. "When the putter feels good in my hand, like it does now, and when my driver is coming, I like my chances," he said. "I feel some good golf coming, yeah."

At Oakmont, of course, that could mean a 75.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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