Fighting round keeps Popovic in the hunt

STILL ON TOP: A two-under 70 has kept Daniel Popovic out in front at the Australian PGA Championship at Coolum.
STILL ON TOP: A two-under 70 has kept Daniel Popovic out in front at the Australian PGA Championship at Coolum.

Anonymous day-one leaders regularly flame out and tumble down the leaderboard at the same pace they climbed it.

But Daniel Popovic isn't done yet in the Australian PGA Championship at Coolum.

If the 26-year-old Victorian surprised everyone by leading the tournament after the first round, it was equally impressive to see him hang tough and survive on day two as the peloton formed up behind him.

A two-under 70 was enough to send him into the weekend equal leader at 10-under and firmly in contention for what would be a stunning and emotional PGA title, one dedicated to his sick father Radi, who is back in Melbourne battling incurable bone cancer.

Unlike day one, where few could make real inroads into eight-under 64 for most of the day, Popovic didn't have it all his own way. Twenty players are now in five shots of the lead.

Major winner and 2008 PGA champion Geoff Ogilvy (69) was two shots back, while China's Zhang Xin Jun (67) overtook him on top of the leaderboard late in his round courtesy of four straight birdies before bogeying 18 to finish tied at the top.

But Popovic, a 300-1 pre-tournament long shot, has character in spades and is playing on emotion as well as skill. He spoke to the media after his opening round and said he was hitting the ball so well, there was no chance he'd blow out on day two.

He was good to his word, even if his 70 didn't have the lustre of some of the other low scores on a day where the winds settled down and the birdies flowed in bright conditions.

A lack of confidence isn't an issue for Popovic, an admirable stance for a man who has been wildly inconsistent in his 12 tournaments this year, making the cut in just half and blowing out to some big scores on the back of inconsistent putting.

A new blade has given him fresh resolve on the greens at Coolum and he's more than happy to be one of the hunted on the weekend, rather than be chasing from deep in the field.

''I'm stoked, I can't get the smile off of my face actually since I finished the round. It's an unbelievable experience. I can't even explain it, I'm lost for words explaining it,'' Popovic said.

''I have put myself in positions in tournaments before where I have had the chance to win. I am playing well and I have a lot of confidence.

''It's not like I am out there thinking 'don't hit a bad shot' or 'don't shoot a bad round'. I'm still going out there with the same mindset of being confident and being aggressive.

''I'm not in one-way thinking that a bad shot can come at all.''

Popovic was on such a rush after his first round heroics that he barely slept before he teed off for the second.

And he might be up again with nightmares about the par five 15th, which he bogied in the first round and doubled in the second.

''That 15th hole, I can't get my head around it. We didn't have the best lie and then just completely stuffed it up. It was a mind blank. There's no explanation for it apart from I just wasn't in the shot,'' Popovic said.

Popovic wasted little time after his round to go back to the practice green and prime himself for the third round. He didn't go near the gym after revealing his only exercise is a round of golf, bucking the trend of ripped young pros that spend hours working on strength and flexibility.

''Absolutely none,'' Popovic replied when asked about his fitness regime. ''Playing 18 holes of golf.''

Zhang has looked superb with a pair of 67s but also came undone on 15, dropping a shot, regaining it on 17 before making bogey on 18.

Zhang left school at 15 to become a security guard. His first assignment was to be posted to a golf course, where he took to the game. He hoped to become a coach but after turning pro in January, could become the unlikely PGA champion.

Ogilvy, who will play with Popovic on Saturday, and Matthew Griffin (67) share outright second on eight under, with Mathew Goggin (66), local fancy Steven Bowditch (67) and Brad Kennedy (68) tied for third.

Australian Open champion Peter Senior and Rod Pampling are minus-six while Kurt Barnes shot the low round of the day, with his seven-under 65 good enough to put him five shots off the leaders and within striking distance.

Brett Rumford was out of contention but disqualified from the tournament after signing an incorrect card.

Brisbane Times