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January 27 2012

1:48 AM

Tweaks prove valuable for the leaders

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Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Bill Haas tweaked his putter and made 11 birdies Thursday at Torrey Pines.

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Four weeks into the 2012 PGA TOUR season, there are still definite signs of rust.

Just ask Phil Mickelson, who fired a disappointing 77 on the South Course Thursday that left him in very real danger of missing the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open for just the fifth time in his career. But even among the leaders, there's some tinkering being done.

Bill Haas, for example, is fiddling with his putter. At the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, he used the same belly putter that helped him win a playoff at last year's TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola -- and with that title, the FedExCup.

The magic appeared to be gone, though, as Haas ranked dead last among the field with 136 putts, including 36 on the final day. Small wonder, then, that Haas opted to banish the belly and return to a traditional length putter last week at the Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation.

Unfortunately for Haas, the results weren't much better. He was tied for 74th -- and 75 players made the cut -- with a total of 121 putts per round and he never had fewer than 30 on any day in the desert.

So Haas decided to trim an inch from the shaft of his belly putter this week. Voila -- he used just 27 as he made 11 birdies and shot a 63 on the North Course that left him one shot off the lead at the Farmers Insurance Open.

"Great start mainly with the putter, and today it felt really good, which is surprising because these greens probably the toughest to putt on so far that we've played," Haas said.

The three-time PGA TOUR champ, who took a share of the lead into the final round at Torrey Pines last year, doesn't know if the alteration is the answer. "But sometimes just being a little different it's a little more comfortable," he said.

Besides, there was a practical reason for shortening the putter. Haas felt like he couldn't get his eyes over the ball. The inch he excised made a big difference on Thursday.

"The longer it is, the harder it is," Haas said. "The putter has to go further away from your feet. So it allows me to get over the ball a little better and maybe see the line. That's my theory."

Kyle Stanley, who is tied for the lead with Spencer Levin after both shot 62s, was looking for answers after missing the cut last week. He only hit 27 of 41 fairways and 38 of 54 greens. Two rounds of even par in what is normally a birdie fest simply did him in.

A 20-minute drive up the coast to the Titleist Performance Institute on Monday proved to be time well-spent, though. Not to mention, Stanley played the North Course in Wednesday's pro-am, and he could see there were birdies to be had.

"I didn't play very well last week, but I spent Monday up at Titleist and figured a few things out and started hitting it really well," Stanley said. "...   I think it was just my alignment.  I was setting up way out, so it was causing me to go really in to out on the downswing, so just squared things up a little bit."

Levin is playing with a new driver but it wasn't put in the bag out of frustration. He cracked his tried-and-true model prior to the final round of the Sony Open in Hawaii where he tied for 23rd. Levin rarely carries a back-up so he ended up using his dad's driver and shot 72.

"Last week I was fooling around with a few, and I found what I like now, and it's pretty good," Levin said. "But it was scary because I hadn't switched in two years and I hardly every switch clubs, so that was kind of a curveball."

Levin ended up hitting 12 of 14 fairways on Thursday so the new driver must be working well.

"I kind of tinker with the weights a little bit on the R11," he said. "But I got it to where my swing was today, so hopefully, I can do that again. I like it a lot. I was hitting it really straight today.”

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