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Early bird gets lead

TODAY: ROUND 3

Nothing against the West Coast of Florida and the PGA Tour, nothing against sunshine and warm breezes. Retief Goosen, truth be told, would prefer to be in rainy Spain, playing in the European PGA Tour's season-ending event, battling for his third consecutive money title.

But countryman Ernie Els locked up that honor a few weeks ago, and Goosen didn't quite feel secure about his standing in next week's Tour Championship. So he canceled his plans to go to Europe and instead drove from Orlando for the Chrysler Championship.

And if he keeps this up, more than a few players will wish he were in Spain, too.

Goosen shot 5-under-par 66 Friday morning during the second round at the Westin Innisbrook Resort to take a lead that stood up all afternoon on the ever-toughening Copperhead course.

The 2001 U.S. Open champion completed 36 holes at 135, 7 under, and will take a one-shot advantage into the weekend over Argentina's Jose Coceres (68) and J.J. Henry (67), a third-year pro who is winless on the PGA Tour.

"The plan was to play the Volvo Masters," said Goosen, 34, who is a member of both the PGA and European tours. "But it was pretty bunched up between 26th and 30th on the (PGA Tour) money list to get into next week. And I had a poor round (at the Funai Classic) which really got me nowhere. If I would have had a good round last week, I might have gone back to Europe.

"But since I can't win the Order of Merit (money title) this year, I thought if I could get into the top 30 (on the PGA Tour) or a get a win to get me to the Mercedes Championship it would be great if I could get that done."

First he will have to make it through two more rounds on a Copperhead course that seemed to be getting tougher by the moment late in the day.

Henry, 28, who shot 67, and Jerry Kelly, who shot 69, were the only players to move into the top nine who played in the afternoon. Tampa native Woody Austin shot 65, the best round of the day and one of 25 in the 60s, which was 14 more than Thursday.

But putting two good rounds back to back has proved to be difficult.

"It's playing like a major championship," said Stewart Cink, who shot consecutive 72s. "But that's good. The harder it plays, the cream rises to the top."

The cut came at 145, 3 over, which matches the highest 36-hole number this year on the PGA Tour other than the four major championships.

Among those who missed the cut were British Open champion Ben Curtis (149) and PGA champion Shaun Micheel (149). Phil Mickelson failed by nine shots and will miss qualifying for the Tour Championship for the first time in 11 years.

First-round leader Charles Howell shot 71 and was at 137, 5 under, tied with PGA championship runner-up Chad Campbell (69) and Kelly for fourth. Briny Baird shot 67 and was in position to make his first Tour Championship with a strong finish. He was tied with France's Thomas Levet (67), who needs a top-four finish to retain his tour card.

Henry has no such worries, which might just mean he was in the best position of all. At 100th on the money list, even a victory would not qualify him for next week's Tour Championship. And failure would not be the end of the world, either.

"I have nothing to lose," said Henry, who has one top-10 this year, a tie for ninth at the BellSouth Classic in April. "I have a great opportunity to just go out. Obviously, we talk a lot about the top 125 or top 30. I have a great opportunity to go out and try to win my first event and what better way to end off the year than with a W."

Coceres, 40, is 160th on the money list, but because he won twice in 2001 is exempt through next season. Coceres missed much of last season with a broken bone in his wrist sustained playing soccer in Argentina and got off to a slow start this year. But he is bidding for his second top-10 in his past three starts.

Vijay Singh, the tour's leading money winner, has nine top 10s in his past 10 tournaments. But he has more on his mind than that. A victory here would clinch his first PGA Tour money title. A strong finish would make it more difficult for Tiger Woods to catch him next week at the Tour Championship.

Goosen knows all about money titles. A South African who has homes in London and Orlando, he became in 2001 the first non-European to win the Order of Merit since Greg Norman in 1982. He did it again last year. But this year, his only victory came at the Trophee Lancome in France. He is ninth on the European money list, 26th on the PGA Tour.

"My putting has not been up to standard this year," said Goosen, who is 10th in the world ranking but had four three-putt greens during the first round. "And if you look at the guys winning, their putting stats are right up there."

ON THE BUBBLE

The Chrysler Championship is the last full-field event on the PGA Tour schedule, which means it is the last chance for players fighting for their 2004 PGA Tour card to make money and solidify their position. In order to be fully exempt, a player must finish among the top 125 money winners. Here is a list of players and their status after the second round:

123: Esteban Toledo, $487,495 _ missed cut, has to hope nobody passes him.

124: Pat Bates, $485,919 _ T36, controls his destiny.

125: Per-Ulrik Johansson, $484,577 _ MC, almost certainly will get bumped out.

126: Dicky Pride, $483,923 _ MC, will head back to Q-school.

127: Spike McRoy, $480,773 _ MC, fortunate he is a 2002 tournament winner, meaning he is exempt next year.

128: Chris Smith, $479,523 _ withdrew, fortunate he is a 2002 tournament winner, meaning he is exempt next year.

129: Jose Maria Olazabal $479,155 _ Playing in Spain, two-time Masters champion is exempt through 2004.

130: Glen Hnatiuk, $476,453 _ T24, as long as he finishes tournament, he will pass Johansson, but needs to worry about those behind him.

131: Mark Wilson, $472,518 _ T58, made cut on number, has a chance.

132: Olin Browne, $468,533 _ T58, made cut on number, has a chance.

133: Garrett Willis, $467,213 _ MC, will head back to Q-school.

134: Dennis Paulson, $452,648 _ unable to get into Chrysler field.

135: David Sutherland, $451,442 _ MC, will head back to Q-school.

136: Brian Gay, $447,647 _ MC, will head back to Q-school.

137: Mike Heinan, $432,417 _ MC, will head back to Q-school.

138: Tom Gillis, $432,100 _ MC, will head back to Q-school.

139: John E. Morgan, $422,917 _ MC, will head back to Q-school.

140: Aaron Barber, $410,359 _ T36, will need to finish 14th or better.

141: Greg Chalmers, $403,254 _ MC, will head back to Q-school.

142: Mark O'Meara, $388,349 _ MC, can use a top 25 all-time money-winner exemption next year.

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