Durant feeds off Atlanta fans

ATLANTA -- This is a fickle sports town, borne on sprightly superstars, sustained on a healthy diet of athletic ascendancies.

It's where Dominique Wilkins was dubbed the Human Highlight Film for his awe-inspiring midair theatrics. Where Michael Vick provokes oohs and ahhs for his impassioned, impulsive, provocative maneuvers every autumn Sunday afternoon. But it's also where the Braves hardly earn a groundswell of support until the calendar hits October. Where plenty of good seats remained available just hours before opening-night tipoff for the Hawks, a perennial NBA cellar-dweller.

Here in Atlanta, success is appreciated. Failure is hardly tolerated and usually ignored.

As one might imagine, the absences of golf's two biggest drawing cards, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, attracted the ire of local fans, as each player elected to forgo the season-ending event in favor of, well, more personal pursuits.

Their fellow elite stars, however, must have been licking their chops at the prospect of competing in a field devoid of the world's first- and third-ranked players. Such fervor shows on the Tour Championship leaderboard through two rounds, with household names Adam Scott, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk and Retief Goosen lingering amongst the low scorers entering the weekend.

Then there's Joe Durant. Hardly a superstar, he spent much of Friday's round playing like one, taking dead aim flagsticks and capitalizing with a smattering of short birdie putts. All the while, he ingratiated himself with the admiring gallery, matching observers smile for smile, parrying each comment of "Nice putt," with an appreciative, "Thank you."

That may not sound like much, but it's more than most top players will proffer towards their devotees. Perhaps that is why when Durant, playing in the day's final pairing, knocked his approach to five feet on East Lake's fourth hole, the fans rewarded him with affectionate applause. Meanwhile, when Goosen could only strike his shot to within seven feet just moments later, he was met by deafening silence.

Those fickle Atlanta fans.

But there's more to the support for Durant than simply the fact that he acknowledges it. He's been hot lately, with top-six finishes in each of his last four starts, including a victory at the Funai Classic. He's an underdog, a relative unknown among the stars, a short hitter among the big bombers. And he's a (somewhat) local guy, born and raised in Pensacola, Fla., just 280 miles over the state border.

"I'm a southern boy, so I feel like I'm pretty close to home here," Durant said following the second round. "I don't mind interacting with the galleries. I have a ton of friends here, people I went to college with and high school with, so it's fun."

Of course, those factors notwithstanding, the Atlanta crowds are cheering on their man Joe this week for the same reason they cheer any of the city's sporting heroes -- he's winning. Through two consecutive rounds of 2-under 68, Durant is tied atop the leaderboard with Scott, three shots clear of the nearest competitors.

On Friday, Durant's scorecard resembled the famed Georgia peach -- a bit fuzzy on the outskirts, but sweet and juicy in the middle. He opened with a bogey and two pars on his first three holes, closed with a bogey and five pars on his last six holes, but caught fire in between. The rally began with a birdie on 4, another on 7, then 9 and a final one on 12. The stretch was the difference between finding himself running with the pack entering the weekend and being leader of the pack.

Despite the hot start to only his second career Tour Championship, Durant knows he needs to improve in order to keep wowing the Atlanta galleries for two more days.

"I personally need to play better if I'm going to win," he said. "I didn't hit the ball great [Friday]. I felt like I was struggling with my swing out there, probably residue from [Thursday], more than anything."

If he wins, Durant will be hailed as a champion in this town, a guy who fed off the encouragement of the fans en route to a victory. If he loses, well, he'll just be another face in the crowd, pushed aside as the patrons heap applause onto the guy with the trophy in his hands.

How fickle.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com