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Ben Martin doing it with ease in the Big Easy

Reuters

(Reuters) - Ben Martin could not quite emulate his brilliant opening round, but played well enough to open a three-stroke halfway lead over fellow American Andrew Svoboda at the $6.8 million Zurich Classic of New Orleans on Friday.

After a course record 62 on Thursday, the former U.S. Amateur Championship runner-up threatened to run away from the field when he picked up four more strokes in his first four holes on an ideal morning at the TPC Louisiana.

In the end, a five-under-par 67 was not quite enough to start planning his victory speech, but it nonetheless left Martin in command at 15-under 129.

Svoboda, without a blemish on his card all week until he three-putted his final hole, shot a 68 to move into second place on 12-under, with South Korean Noh Seung-yul (68) another stroke back in third.

"Four-under through four, it was nice to validate what I did yesterday, getting off to a hot start," Martin told reporters.

"Sometimes there can be a bit of a letdown after a really good round but I hit it to about six inches on (my first hole) and chipped in for eagle (on the next).

"Being 14-under through 22 holes was unfamiliar ground. I started thinking a little bit ahead."

A double-bogey at his ninth hole, the par-five 18th, where he drove into a water hazard and also three-putted, brought him back to reality, and that was the last blemish on his card.

"That was a little bit of a wake-up call," said Martin, 26, in his second season on the PGA Tour after losing his card in his 2012 rookie campaign.

His form this week is no flash in the pan. He tied for third at the Heritage last week and also posted a third-placing at the Puerto Rico Open in March.

He credits his recent improvement to a mental decision to focus on playing consistently, rather than worrying about winning.

"I wanted to win two tournaments so I was thinking about winning every week and I was missing cuts, so it was really frustrating," he said.

"I changed my goal to being in the top 30 (in the tour ranking) at the end of the year and playing in the Tour Championship.

"I felt like I played well last weekend, got a bit of confidence from that and hopefully I keep it going."

James Driscoll, meanwhile, had a close encounter in a bunker at the 18th hole.

With an alligator lurking far too close for comfort, Driscoll decided it would be prudent to scare the reptile away before playing out of the sand.

Fellow competitor John Peterson came to the rescue, using a rake to poke the alligator in the tail and coax it back into the adjacent pond.

Still Driscoll missed the cut.

(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, Editing by Gene Cherry)

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