Jimenez leaves pack in cloud of smoke

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 December, 2004, 12:00am

'I'm feeling great,' warns contented, cigar-wielding Spaniard

Miguel Angel Jimenez reigned supreme as the Omega Hong Kong Open reached the halfway stage yesterday. The pony-tailed Spaniard heartily puffed away on his beloved Cuban cigars after taking a handy two-shot lead.

'I always smoke one of these after I play golf. Sometimes even before,' said Jimenez as he waved the fat Monte Cristo around.

While most people would only break the seal on those much sought-after Cuban cigars after striking a lucrative deal or on a special occasion, for Jimenez it is part and parcel of the way he lives.

There was reason to celebrate yesterday, for Jimenez was on top of the leaderboard after his second-round score of six-under-par 64. Behind the cloud of smoke emanating from his cigar was an illustrious field including Ryder Cup teammates David Howell and defending champion Padraig Harrington. Not to mention Major winners Nick Faldo and Jose Maria Olazabal.

'It is very exciting for everyone when there are so many big names in the field. I'm very happy to be in front. I played solid all day and I feel very good. I'm in the mood and feeling great,' smiled Jimenez, who is at 11-under-par 129.

Two shots behind Jimenez was Englishman Howell. Tied in third place on seven-under 133 and four shots off the pace was Irish ace Harrington, Alessandro Tadini of Italy, and young South African Louis Oosthuizen.

Chinese ace Zhang Lianwei kept Asia's flag flying when he matched Jimenez with a 64 for 134 to lie five shots off the pace. Olazabal was one shot further behind on 135 after adding a 68 to his first round 67.

Jimenez went on a birdie spree on the back nine, firing in five of his six birdies, in a marvellous exhibition of putting and club play.

'I'm creating the shots and anytime you are trying to create something, you are focusing. My game is there,' said Jimenez.

Nicknamed 'The Mechanic' for his strong work ethic, and for also having a gleaming red Ferrari in his garage in Malaga, Jimenez showed he was determined to claim a fifth title this year. Jimenez began cautiously, reaching the mid-point with only one birdie.

'On the front nine I played well but I only got one birdie. But on the second nine it all began to happen,' said Jimenez. He drained putts from varying lengths to start putting the pressure on Howell, who was two flights behind. On his penultimate hole, Jimenez joined Howell on 10-under with a 12-foot birdie. He then grabbed the sole lead at the 18th when he hit a three-wood and a sand wedge to five feet for a birdie.

That one-shot lead blossomed into two when Howell dropped a shot on the 18th after hooking his tee shot into the trees. The 29-year-old Englishman was still happy despite the disappointing finish.

'It is still a lovely position to be in. Obviously, Miguel is playing well and will be tough to beat. But golf is a funny game. If I have to win, I must start getting more comfortable. At the moment, I don't feel comfortable with my swing and I'm not hitting the ball as purely as I would like to,' said Howell.

Defending champion Harrington, who began the day tied with Jimenez and Howell, and one stroke behind leader Adam Groom of Australia, struggled to find his putting touch, shooting a three-under-par 68. Groom could only manage an even-par 70 and is five shots back.

Harrington said: 'I had a couple of birdie chances on the 16th and 18th right at the end. If I had got them, it would have been a good round. But it's not the end of the world and I'm not going to let that worry me,' The Dubliner said he had been put off by a photographer who had been following his flight all day and who had only been interested in China's Liang Wenchong.

'I've been having a funny day all day. These two cameramen were following Liang all day and every time he takes his club away, I heard a click. It kept distracting me even though they had no interest in me at all,' laughed Harrington.

England's Faldo knows how that feels. The six-time Major winner irately showed a cameraman the way to the clubhouse after he disrupted play. The red-carded cameraman sheepishly took Faldo's advice.

Faldo kept his composure to record a 67 for 136, seven shots off the pace in his bid for his first Hong Kong Open victory.

Jimenez's countryman Olazabal fared better. The 2002 Hong Kong Open champion carded 68 and is six shots behind Jimenez.