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honda classic at Palm Beach Gardens Fla.

Dudley Hart spent some of Friday afternoon poised to turn The Honda Classic into a runaway. Later in the day, it was Brian Davis’ turn to take what seemed like a huge lead.

But PGA National eventually caught up with them.

And by nightfall, the Honda leaderboard was muddled again.

Davis shot a 3-under 67 to finish the day at 8 under, one shot better than Matt Jones (67) and two shots ahead of Hart – a former South Florida resident whose last victory was at the 2000 Honda, and who peeled off six straight birdies in a 66.

“Around this course, I think you’d need about a 20-shot lead with one round to go,” Davis said. “You know around here, it’s going to come down to the last nine holes, just the way the course is set up. I can’t see anybody getting a six-shot lead out there tomorrow.”

 
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He almost had one Friday.

After a bogey-free opening round, Davis started his second round just as precisely, getting to 10 under at one point and four shots clear of the field.

Then this diabolical course – as it typically does – began to fight back.

Davis made a double bogey at the par-3 seventh, his 16th of the day, then missed the green to the right and slid a 10-foot par try just past the cup on his final hole.

“I’m sure every player’s got a few hiccups around here,” Davis said.

Some fewer than others, though.

John Mallinger (67) and Ben Crane (66) were tied for fourth, three shots off the lead. Ernie Els shot a 70 and was in a group of six players, including Mark Calcavecchia and Robert Allenby, five shots back of Davis.

First-round leader Luke Donald shot a 74, including a quadruple bogey on the 14th, to fall six shots back.

Mike Weir of Bright’s Grove, Ont., fired a second-round 73 to miss the cut by two shots. Jon Mills of Oshawa, Ont., also went home early following a 77.

Hart played in the afternoon, when the wind picked up and the course, theoretically, was significantly harder than in the morning session. But he went out in 29, and only a double bogey at the par-3 17th kept him from finishing the day with a share of the lead.

“You don’t birdie six in a row very often,” Hart said. “You know, everybody out here has gone through stretches where they have done that. It’s just hard to describe, really. Just things are clicking right, and the putts are falling, and good things are happening.”

Most players at PGA National didn’t have the same sentiment.

Defending champion Mark Wilson shot his second straight 73 and missed the cut, along with other notables Weir, Chris DiMarco. Rich Beem and Fred Funk. Tadd Fujikawa, the 17-year-old from Honolulu, still hasn’t made the cut as a pro after missing by 10 shots, and David Duval missed by six.

The cut was 4-over 144, and 77 players made it – meaning the tour’s new “second cut” policy won’t come into play after Saturday’s round. If more than 78 advanced Friday, the tour would have trimmed again to the low 70 and ties following the third round, under an amended plan newly installed this week.

Duval, like Hart, has a major medical exemption this year because of health problems endured by his wife in 2007. Hart – whose wife fell seriously ill last year but is now healthy – is only about US$150,000 shy of what he needed to make this year, yet says he isn’t spending much time thinking about it.

“I came out this year and I just said, you know, I’m going to try to work hard, play well and if I make the money and do it, then great,” said Hart, who made more than $300,000 with a third-place finish at Pebble Beach. “But if I don’t, it’s not going to kill me. I have three kids, a healthy wife at home and a lot of good things going on there.”

Duval hasn’t bounced back so well.

He was over par on eight of his 18 holes Friday, including three double bogeys. Duval hasn’t earned a penny this year in five starts, meaning he has 15 chances left to make the $713,235 he needs to reach what would have been 125th on last year’s money list.

Davis is on pace to make that, and plenty more, this weekend.

With seven first-time champions in the past 12 years, the Honda – which pays $990,000 to the winner – is a haven for those seeking a breakthrough victory, a fact not lost on Davis.

He’s 0-for-98 on tour. He’s never had such a good chance to change that, either.

“It’s a welcome return to form,” Davis said. “And it’s where you want to be.”

Notes: Scott Hoch, who entered the Honda after two straight wins on the Champions Tour, made the cut on the number. .. Tim Petrovic withdrew because of a neck injury after completing eight holes, the last two resulting in double bogeys. .. Carl Petterson holed a 30-yarder for eagle at the par-5 third hole, highlighting his round of 66 that got him within six shots of the lead. .. Tag Ridings, who didn’t have a bogey in his first 22 holes, finished with seven Friday – but still squeaked into the weekend on the cut line.

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The Honda Classic leader after the first round is Luke Donald with a bogey free 64

Luke Donald’s opening round in The Honda Classic was far from perfect. He missed five greens and seven fairways, including five straight on the back nine.

And conditions at windy, cool PGA National were hardly optimal for scoring.

Yet somehow, Donald found a way to post the Honda’s best score in three years.

A bogey-free 64 Thursday gave Donald a one-shot lead over Brian Davis and a two-shot edge on Matt Jones after the first round of the Honda – an event Donald won two years ago when it was at nearby Mirasol, a considerably easier track.

“I did a lot of good things around the greens and when I had my chances I took them,” Donald said. “I didn’t drive it particularly well. I need to improve that. I probably hit only half the fairways, which is not quite good enough. Apart from that, everything was very good.”

 
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Donald posted the lowest round at a Honda since Padraig Harrington shot a final-round 63 to win in 2005 at Mirasol, and the 64 was the best in 571 tournament rounds since the event moved to PGA National – where Mark Wilson’s winning score a year ago was 5 under. Wilson shot a 73 on Thursday.

“Golf is just a tough game sometimes,” Donald said. “It sometimes gets you down, and we’ve all been there before, but luckily right now I feel pretty confident about my game. I feel confident about where I’m heading, and I’m definitely going the right direction.”

He wasn’t alone in feeling that way.

Matt Jones (66) was alone in third, two shots off the pace, with a slew of others – including Ernie Els, the world’s No. 4 player – three shots back. Els was one of only 10 players to make birdie at the arduous, 508-yard, par-4 10th, which was his first hole of the day.

“This is really my first full event, so to speak, of the year over here, so I needed to get off to a good start,” said Els, whose PGA Tour campaign for 2008 began with a first-round exit last week in the Accenture Match Play. “I was a little nervy this morning to force myself to get off to a good start, and I’ve had that now, so I can start building on that.”

Jose Coceres, who lost to Wilson in a four-man playoff last year, and Jesper Parnevik were in a group within four shots of Donald at 68.

“You’ve almost got to have a major mentality here,” Parnevik said.

He already overcame a major problem here this week.

Parnevik fell ill playing in Mexico last weekend; a dirty drinking glass, he said, was the culprit that left him unable to eat any solid food since Saturday and took 11 pounds off his already-slim frame.

His preparation on Wednesday consisted primarily of getting intravenous fluids in the tour’s medical trailer. But even with a 6:50 a.m. tee time, Parnevik – who, like Donald and a bunch of other South Florida residents, only lives a few minutes from the course – battled his way to a 68.

“Everybody that lives here knows that this can happen,” Parnevik said. “But how it goes from almost 90 (32 C) to 43 (6 C) here in a couple days is hard for a lot of people to understand.”

Much like the Florida temperatures the last few days, Jimmy Walker’s game went from hot to cold in a real hurry.

Walker was ninth alternate at the start of the week and only got in the field because another alternate – Michael Sim, who replaced Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger – withdrew.

For a while, Walker took full advantage of the chance. He was within one stroke of Donald as he went to the par-4 15th, but double-bogey there derailed his run at the lead and he finished with a 67.

Mike Weir of Bright’s Grive, Ont., and Jon Mills of Oshawa, Ont. each finished 3-over 73.

Donald gets introduced as a former Honda champion, but he doesn’t really feel like one, since being at a different venue gives the tournament a decidedly different feel. After winning in ’06 at Mirasol, Donald’s debut at the Honda’s new home last year was forgettable – a first-round 77 doomed his repeat chances.

This time, he’s back in the ideal position.

“If you get a strong wind, constant wind, it’s still not an easy golf course,” Donald said. “Anything under par is a good score.”

Divots: Tadd Fujikawa hasn’t made a cut since turning pro last summer, and that streak looks safe. The 17-year-old from Honolulu shot 78. ..Joe Ogilvie (80) made a quadruple-bogey and triple-bogey within a five-hole span, but still beat Kevin Stadler by a shot. .. Chris DiMarco (75) took a quadruple-bogey on the par-3 15th after hitting two tee balls in the water. .. Tommy Armour III withdrew after nine holes, citing illness and elbow pain. He made two bogeys and two double-bogeys before departing.