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Improved putting helps Schwartzel lead

MALELANE, November 27 – Charl Schwartzel finished his second round on Friday with a 15-footer for birdie on the ninth at Leopard Creek to card a five-under-par 67 and move into a five-stroke lead at 11-under-par at the halfway stage in the Alfred Dunhill Championship.

That putt underlined his dominance over the field, especially over the stretch of holes from seven to nine, and the four players on six-under – two-time champion Pablo Martin Benavides of Spain, 2008 champion Richard Sterne, Frenchman Benjamin Hebert and Joost Luiten of the Netherlands – will know they have to produce a weekend’s worth of low scoring to overturn the 2011 Masters champion’s lead.

“Man, it was nice to make that sort of putt,” said Schwartzel. “The pin was very difficult to get at, so I was always going to have to make a 15-footer for birdie. I haven’t made many of them for a long time.”

That putt was the culmination of a stretch which showed just why Schwartzel can dominate as he does at Leopard Creek, where he has won on three occasions and been runner-up on four more: He made bogey on seven, which was the most difficult hole on the course for the second day in a row for his only drop in the round.

“I actually played seven the right way,” he said. “I normally play it up the left side and I hit a decent chip, but I made a very poor putt for par and took bogey there. Eight was playing very difficult with the wind straight across, so to make a par there – you’ll take it any day.”

Then came the ninth and that putt. Schwartzel has endured a lean year, and as his swing improved, he discovered his putting had deserted him.

“I am working so hard on it and it definitely feels as if it is starting to show some improvement,” he said. “Although they’re not going in the hole as often as I’d like, I’m hitting a lot of better putts more often. Recently, I’d only have two good putts in a round, and now I’m getting 12 or 13.

“I’ve been going through stages where I hit putts that miss as they come off the blade. At least now, it looks good until it gets to the hole – and then it misses. But that’s a step in the right direction. At least I’m hitting putts that are scaring the hole and I know that it’s a matter of time before they start going in.”

The two men who have won before in a share of second have no illusions as to the task facing them. “I’m trying to be at the top of the leader board instead of at the bottom,” said Martin. “It changes my attitude on the weekend. It’s nice to play two more days, especially if you’re in contention. You start feeling a bit of pressure.”

And Sterne knows he’ll have to go low. “So I’m going to have to do something quite low on the weekend in order to win. I think you’ve got to look at probably 17-under,” he said.

They will be taking on a man who loves this course more than any other. “I just think I feel very comfortable here,” said Schwartzel. “I’ve gained confidence in the lines that I hit. There are trees almost on every single hole where I aim, and every year I come back and I look at it and it just feels right.”