NEW ORLEANS, Apr 29 (Reuters) American Joe Durant upstaged the bigger names at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans on Friday while overnight leader Graeme McDowell of Britain fell back.
Durant, a three-times winner on the PGA Tour, fired a flawless eight-under-par 64 at a breezy English Turn Golf&Country Club to forge two strokes clear after the second round yesterday.
The 42-year-old from Pensacola, Florida rattled up four birdies on each nine for a 36-hole total of 12-under 132, with compatriot Brett Wetterich alone in second place after a 65.
''I'm just happy to be playing fairly solid,'' Durant told eporters.
''I got off to a shaky start this year, and wasn't hitting the ball well at all.'' The American, whose last PGA Tour victory came at the 2001 Genuity Championship, has not finished higher than joint 36th in 10 starts this season.
''Most of my career I basically relied on hitting the ball fairly well,'' Durant added.
''When you don't, a panic flag can go up a little bit.
''I've made a lot of cuts this season but haven't played particularly well. It's been far too long.'' Twice U S Open champion Retief Goosen was among a group of seven players tied for third on a tightly-bunched leaderboard.
The South African world number three shot a 69, finishing level with Britain's Ian Poulter (68), Australia's Stephen Leaney (67) and American quartet Michael Allen (67), Charley Hoffman (69), Eric Axley (65) and Ryan Hietala (68).
MAIDEN TITLE Australia's Aaron Baddeley, who won his maiden PGA Tour title at the Heritage Classic two weeks ago, carded a 67 to lie a further stroke back on eight-under 136, along with 2001 winner David Toms, who fired a matching 67.
Northern Ireland's McDowell, one shot ahead overnight after spectacularly eagling his final hole for an opening 64, battled to a 73.
The 26-year-old from Portrush bogeyed his first hole of the day before offsetting two birdies with two more dropped shots for a seven-under total of 137.
U S Masters champion Phil Mickelson also experienced a frustrating day, an erratic 71 leaving him seven strokes off the pace at five under.
Bidding for a third title in a row, the American left-hander mixed five birdies with two bogeys and a double-bogey six at the 15th.
''My expectations were a lot higher,'' said Mickelson, who is playing his first tournament since the Masters three weeks ago.
''I thought I would come out an d pick up where I left off.
It didn't click into place right away but I should have a much better weekend than I had the first couple days.'' Of the other big names, Ireland's Padraig Harrington was at six under after returning a 68 and 1993 U.S. PGA champion Paul Azinger at four under, after a 69.
The halfway cut fell at four-under 140 with 71 players qualifying for the weekend. Among those missing out were American Ryder Cup player Chris DiMarco, 1998 winner Lee Westwood of Britain and former world number one David Duval.
This week's tournament is the first major international sports event hosted by New Orleans since the Hurricane Katrina disaster last August.
REUTERS PM VC0935