DULUTH, Georgia, Apr 1 (Reuters) Jose Maria Olazabal served notice he could be a genuine contender at next week's U.S. Masters with a flawless, eight-under-par 64 in the BellSouth Classic second round.
The Spaniard, a twice champion at Augusta National, produced the best score of the day yesterday at the TPC at Sugarloaf to finish at nine-under 135, seven strokes behind leader Phil Mickelson.
''I could not have imagined shooting 64 today,'' the 40-year-old told reporters after securing third spot. ''My putting stroke has been off, except for today.
''I didn't putt well last week. Actually, I haven't putted well pretty much all season long.
''But overall I'm comfortable with my game and my attitude so far is pretty good, which is important.'' Olazabal, who birdied four of the last eight holes as the wind began to strengthen at Sugarloaf, needed only 25 putts in his round.
''I played a lot better than yesterday, without question,'' said the Spaniard, who opened with a 71. ''I made a lot of putts and that was the key for today's round.
''The only area where it was not all that good was the driving.
Even though I hit most of the fairways, I did not feel comfortable with it.'' Olazabal has produced two top-10 finishes on the 2006 PGA Tour -- seventh place at last week's Players Championship and a playoff loss to Tiger Woods at the Buick Invitational in January.
''The season has been okay,'' he said. ''On the West Coast, I didn't play steady and had some problems with my irons. But overall I'm happy where I am at the moment.'' ULTRA-LONG AUGUSTA Masters champion in 1994 and 1999, Olazabal will have to contend with an ultra-long Augusta National layout next week.
The course has been stretched to 7,445 yards since last year's tournament, making it the second longest in major championship history.
''I haven't played the course yet and it wouldn't be very fair for me to make an opinion about the changes,'' said Olazabal, who was one of four players edged out by Mickelson in a playoff for last year's BellSouth title.
''But I talked to the boys who have played there already and they say it's really very, very tough. They were hitting quite long irons on to some of the greens.'' ''It was a different golf course when I won, and it suited my game at that point,'' added Olazabal. ''In those days, I hit a lot of great iron shots on to the green, and my short game was very good.
''I think that combination was ideal for that golf course, which I don't think you see now any more. I think you need length and accuracy off the tee. It's a different golf course.'' However he fares next week, Olazabal will relish the experience of being back at Augusta.
''That week is very special for me,'' he said. ''It doesn't matter if they make the golf course 9,000 yards long.
''The two majors that I won, I won them there. Every time I set foot on that place, I feel blessed.
''Golf has given me a lot and that place has given me most of it.
I'm not going to complain about the golf course being that long.'' REUTERS SK RN0715