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Uproars of too many birdies and low scores Thursday at the 2024 Cognizant Classic gave way to blustery conditions and the PGA National course golf fans have come to know and love emerging on Friday. A day after playing about one and a half strokes under par, PGA National played about two strokes more difficult in the second round. While players struggled, Bud Cauley surged in the afternoon and heads into the weekend with the solo lead at 11 under. 

Windy during the middle portion of the day, Palm Beach experienced a reprieve from breezes towards the end of Round 2 aiding the early-late wave. Cauley was right there to take advantage as he signed for six birdies and no bogeys to card one of the rounds of the day at 6-under 65.

It's almost poetic that Cauley found his way to the top of the leaderboard after a hard day given his difficult journey to this point. Away from the sport for three years due to injury, the 33-year-old has had to scratch and claw back to this stage. In only the second PGA Tour start of this comeback, he finds himself with a chance to win.

Cauley's path to the winner's circle won't get any easier over the weekend with names like Cameron Young, Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy in the mix. McIlroy continues to lurk around PGA National and backed up his opening 67 with another to sit three adrift at 8 under. The 34-year-old remained patient for most of his round before catching fire with two birdies around the Bear Trap and another on the par-5 finisher.

Encountering a rather inauspicious start to his PGA Tour season after winning on the DP World Tour to begin 2024, McIlroy continues to march forward and sharpen his game as the Masters approaches. His West Coast swing was riddled with short stretches of poor play that ultimately upended his chances of contending at Pebble Beach and Riviera. Through 36 holes, the 2012 champion has been able to dodge the big number, but they will continue to be a possibility over the weekend given the treacherous nature of PGA National. 

The leader

1. Bud Cauley (-11)

Cauley is a name that has been around the PGA Tour for some time but not enough in recent memory. A single-car accident in which he was a passenger in the summer of 2018 left Cauley with six broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a broken leg. He returned to competition, but complications and surgeries forced him to the sidelines again in 2020. 

He would stay there up until this year, and after a couple rehab starts on the Korn Ferry Tour, Cauley was ready for the main stage. The WM Phoenix Open marked his first official PGA Tour start since the 2020 Fortinet Championship and the beginning of his march toward fulfilling his major medical extension. This week could go a long ways towards that and a long way towards reminding fans  -- and maybe even Cauley -- of the type of golfer he is.

Other contenders

T2. Austin Eckroat, Garrick Higgo (-10)
T4. Kevin Yu, Victor Perez (-9)
T6. David Skinns, C.T. Pan, Shane Lowry, Cameron Young, Rory McIlroy, Jake Knapp (-8)

The bevy of long shot winners coming through on the PGA Tour has been the big storyline in the early stages of the 2024 season, but the influx of European talent should not go unnoticed. The nine players on the PGA Tour who earned their status via finishing top 10 on the DP World Tour in 2023 have been fabulous to start the year, and Perez is the one carrying the torch this week. 

"I think it's great," Perez said referring to DP World Tour players earning PGA Tour cards. "I don't know if the PGA Tour members particularly like it, giving 10 spots, and then there's been a winner with Matt[ieu Pavon], and then Sammy [Valimaki] finished second last leak, really close, coming down to the last hole with Jake. I think it's been great, but it shows that the game is becoming more and more global, and there's some great players coming out of Europe. It's a good group of guys. I think Robert [MacIntyre] played really well, as well, last week. Hopefully more of that for the 10 of us."

Rickie returning to form?

The downward trajectory of Fowler's game since his victory at the 2023 Rocket Mortgage Classic has gone relatively unreported. He has struggled to piece his entire game together, experienced a poor Ryder Cup where he battled illness and has unfortunately carried this into 2024. 

He spoke earlier in the year about needing to validate his 2023 with another strong campaign in 2024. His first five starts have not helped his cause as ball-striking issues have been met with putter problems. His second-round 67 in blustery conditions has propelled him into the mix at the Cognizant Classic, and perhaps it will propel him into the rest of the season.

"I would prefer it to be windy," said Fowler. "Partly I feel like it helps separate a little bit. Yesterday morning, we teed off late, but seeing the conditions with it being pretty calm in the morning, definitely allows for some scores. It's still not an easy golf course, but when it's windy you can make up more ground putting up a round under par. We'll see. Hopefully wind will stay up and that'll kind of get me back in a good position for the weekend."

2024 Cognizant Classic updated odds, picks

Odds via Sportsline Consensus

  • Rory McIlroy: 4-1
  • Cameron Young: 9-1
  • Austin Eckroat: 9-1
  • Bud Cauley: 11-1
  • Shane Lowry: 12-1
  • Garrick Higgo: 12-1
  • Jake Knapp: 16-1
  • Kevin Yu: 16-1
  • Victor Perez: 22-1

McIlroy is driving the cover off the golf ball at the moment and has gotten next to nothing out of his iron play. He stands at a price similar to that from pre-tournament and should be the benefactor of contenders wilting due to weekend nerves. The world No. 2 hasn't pieced it all together through 36 holes, but if he does, he should in with a very real chance come late Sunday evening.