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Long birdie putt helps Price stay in first

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Nick Price watched his 40-foot putt climb a ridge and swing sharply to the left toward the hole. When it disappeared into the cup, he took off his cap in disbelief, turned to the gallery and smiled.

Price needed all the help he could get to stay on top Friday at the Wachovia Championship, finishing with a 1-under 71 for a one-stroke lead over Fred Couples and J.P. Hayes.

His drives kept landing in the rough. He hit only one green in regulation over the final eight holes, on the par-3 17th where he made the long birdie.

"A scruffy day,'' Price described it. "You have to drive the ball in the fairway here if you're going to break par. If my putting goes off a little bit and I play like I did today, I'm going to shoot 74 or 75. If I have one wish on the weekend, it's to
hit fairways.

"If I can do that, I think I'll have a chance.''

Price was at 7-under 137, an indication that Quail Hollow is no pushover.

Rich Beem had just posted an even-par 72 to finish at 139 when a
PGA Tour media official mentioned that no one went low among the
early starters.

"Well, they shouldn't have,'' Beem said. "It was a grind. It
was definitely a lot tougher today than it was yesterday, and I
don't see the scores going very low this afternoon. You guys will
probably be bored.''

Hayes made sure that wasn't the case. He birdied four of his
first six holes, and closed out the best round of the day -- 66 --
with a 5-iron into 15 feet for birdie at No. 9.

"My initial thoughts were this is very difficult,'' Hayes said
of the 7,396-yard course. "And I still think it's very
difficult.''

Couples had back-to-back birdies and was at 9 under through his
first seven holes until his round got away from him. He chunked a
6-iron on No. 17 (bogey). He hit under a tree on the 18th (bogey).
He was too aggressive on the par-3 second hole (bogey) to slip out
of the lead.

It got worse. He felt a back spasm on the fourth green, but
worked out the kinks and closed with all pars.

"I'm very tired and sore right now, but I feel fine,'' Couples
said. "Usually, I can play around it. This happens a lot, and I
think because it was hot, I was able to kind of get out of there.''

David Toms had a bogey-free 69 and was at 5-under 139 along with
Beem, Charles Howell III (69), Brandt Jobe (69) and Robert Gamez
(67).

Mike Weir, playing for the first time since winning the Masters,
had to settle for a 70 and was at 142, five strokes out of the
lead.

"This is the best I've played in two months,'' Weir said. "My
putting is just awful. I better get that straightened out if I'm
going to have a chance.''

Along with missing fairways and greens, Price encountered
another problem. He had two new sand wedges to get ready for the
firm, fast conditions in Texas and the U.S. Open, but the fresh
grooves that create more spin were no good for him at Quail Hollow.

With a sand wedge into the par-5 fifth, he spun it back some 40
feet and lost a chance at birdie. Price did it again on the par-5
10th, and by the time he reached the 346-yard 14th hole, he was so
uptight that his 80-yard shot only got halfway to the green.

"That shot is normally bread-and-butter for me,'' Price said.
"I was powerless today from that distance.''

Price dropped a shot on the 18th hole when his drive barely
hopped into the rough and disappeared in a patch that had not been
mowed. What really irritated Price was his wedge out to the
fairway, which went farther than he wanted -- 88 yards from the pin.

His sand wedge hit 10 feet from the hole, spun back sharply and
finally stopped rolling 70 feet from the cup. Price made two good
putts just to get bogey.

"I've got my old ones with me, which I'm going to put back in
the bag tomorrow,'' he said.

Birdies weren't entirely rare.

Playing with Price was Brad Faxon, who made eight birdies in a
round of 68. Even so, that many might be tough to find over the
weekend.

"You've got to plod along and make as few mistakes as you
can,'' said Beem, who has played his best on the tougher courses
this year. "Whoever does that successfully will be right up there
at the end of the weekend.''

Divots
Vijay Singh is at 1-over 145 despite 10 birdies over two
rounds. He might be better off except for a two-stroke penalty
assessed on the 15th hole Thursday, when Singh used his towel to
dust away sand from off the green. ... Every player received a
Mercedes-Benz for a courtesy car except for 18-year-old Ty Tryon.
The contract stipulated players be at least 21. NASCAR team owner
Felix Sabates, a Quail Hollow member, came to the rescue by letting
Tryon drive his Rolls Royce. "I'm not worried about him driving
it. There's insurance,'' Sabates said. Tryon didn't get to keep it
long. He was among those who missed the cut. ... David Duval
followed his 79 with a 1-over 73 and missed the cut for the eighth
time this year, and the sixth straight tournament. ... Scott Hoch
missed the cut for the fourth straight tournament, the first time
he's done that in his career. He said he probably would take the
next three weeks off.