- Farrell Evans, Golf
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BETHESDA, Md. -- At 4 p.m. ET on Friday, temperatures at Congressional Country Club reached 100 degrees with a heat index of 109. Imagine for a moment the spacious 7,500-yard course as an outdoor furnace.
Imagine Brian Harman's caddie, John Davenport, standing in the fourth fairway next to his player's bag and the heat from the ground leading him to believe that the devil was touching his leg. Imagine Davenport and Harman clamoring for shade and water as if they worked on a chain gang. Imagine the lumbering giant that is 6-foot-4, 230-pound Chris Couch trying to walk 18 holes in long pants and almost passing out.
Now imagine Hunter Mahan climbing the leaderboard on Friday afternoon through the thick of the heat with five birdies on the front nine. Imagine this 30-year-old former Oklahoma State star trying to get his third win of the season on a tricky, fast and firm golf course with 5-inch rough and rock-hard greens.
All of it is true, perhaps even the devil reaching for Davenport's leg.
On Friday, Mahan had the low round of the tournament with a 6-under-par 65 that, coupled with a 70 in Round 1, has him at 7 under overall. The five-time tour winner takes a 2-shot lead into the weekend over Brendon De Jonge, Jimmy Walker and Robert Garrigus.
"I played well," Mahan said. "I hit a lot of good shots. It wasn't a hard round. I hit so many fairways and greens that I made it easy on myself. This is pretty punishing golf course if you get off line a little bit.
"I put myself in some great spots to make putts. I felt like I played really well on the back when it was getting really hot. You're getting a little bit more tired and I was able to bear down and stay a little bit more focused."
Outside of Mahan's wins at the WGC-Accenture Match Play and the Shell Houston Open, he has only one other top-10 on the year. But he does have four other top-20 finishes, including a tie for 12th at the Masters. Since his embarrassing flubbed chip shot at the 2010 Ryder Cup at Wales, Mahan has drastically improved his short game.
That newfound confidence was put on display on Friday at the 14th hole, where he hit his 100-foot chip past the pin and the slope brought it back to the hole for a tap-in par.
"It felt really good to capitalize on all my opportunities today," Mahan said. "I had a lot better birdie looks today than I did on Thursday."
As one of the most consistent drivers of the golf ball on the planet, Mahan has studiously hit 22 of 28 fairways through the first two rounds. He's also hit 28 of 36 greens.
If you can stay out of the rough with straight and long tee shots, it makes it much easier to score.
A win here could offer a measure of redemption for Mahan, who shot a 62 on Sunday at Congressional in 2009 to finish at shot behind Tiger woods.
"I really enjoy this golf course," Mahan said. "This is a great test. It's not unfair. It really gives you a chance to make birdies. When I shot 62 I thought that was a heck of a round. I tried to stay ready for a playoff but I wasn't disappointed at all."
With a victory on Sunday, Mahan would become the first three-time winner on the PGA Tour this season.
AT&T National's 6-over-par cut is the second-highest 36-hole cut in 2012 after the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, where 8 over was the lucky number to make it to the weekend.
For two days Congressional has stood up as a major championship-quality venue. Ultimately, with the brutally hot conditions, the tournament could come down to who can best endure the extreme temperatures to the end. So heading into the weekend, it's hard not to favor players like Woods or Mahan, who take great care of their bodies.
"It's very important to be mentally strong," Mahan said. "That's why we try to work out and keep our bodies in shape for days like this.
"It's going to be important to take care of yourself every night and every day when you're not on the golf course or it's going to cost you shots."
16hZach Jones, ESPN Stats & Information