Golf: Dye is cast as the major winner

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The Independent Online
WHENEVER Lee Westwood walks off the Stadium Course at the TPC of Sawgrass, he does so with a headache. Such is the demanding nature of the venue, since 1982, of the Players' Championship. "You only have to look at the leaderboard to see how good a course this is," Westwood said.

At two under par, following a second round of 69, the 25-year-old Englishman was alongside Colin Montgomerie and five behind Joe Ozaki. The Japanese player, younger brother of Jumbo, could be considered a surprise leader at halfway were it not for the fact that he was in exactly the same position at exactly the same stage 12 months ago.

Ozaki has once again relished the super-fast greens, similar to the ones he competes on at home, but he faced a daunting list of contenders in trying to improve on last year's demise over the weekend. David Duval, Jacksonville's finest, was just a shot behind, followed by Bruce Lietzke, the American who will only manage to fit in nine tournaments this year while he also coaches his son's high school golf team in Dallas.

Ernie Els, after a 67 on Friday, Davis Love and Curtis Strange, the former double US Open champion who spends more time in the commentary box these days, were at four under, with world No 1 Tiger Woods and Nick Price at three under par.

The Players' Championship is not quite a major but it tends to be won by major champions. The whole set up at Sawgrass, home of the US PGA Tour, is of the highest quality and it is clear that Tim Finchem, the US tour's commissioner, considers his flagship event well above the new World Golf Championship tournaments. That is especially true of Pete Dye's course compared to the tame layout at La Costa for the World Matchplay.

Even on their practice rounds on Tuesday, players noticed the greens were already showing signs of turning brown, so hard and dry were they. "They don't have to trick this golf course up," said Lietzke. "The greens look like they are dying or they are dead.

"I have a problem with putting the health of the greens in peril for people who want to play the course for the rest of the year."

One of those people is Duval and the world No 2 denied he had any home advantage since the course only plays this hard and fast for this week. The quietly spoken 27-year-old has just taken three weeks off but has slipped immediately back into the commanding form with which he chalked up two wins on the West Coast, including a final-round 59 at the Bob Hope Classic. When asked for a possible winning score, Westwood merely said: "One less than Duval."

The American would have already taken the lead had he not uncharacteristically missed two short birdie putts at the 16th and 18th on Friday. A putting renaissance from Westwood in a second round in which he made six birdies was thanks to a putting lesson from Darren Clarke on Thursday evening. "Darren told me to work on my rhythm by putting with my eyes closed and just thinking about the feel," Westwood explained.

Clarke himself dropped two late shots in his second 70, which represented a huge improvement on his form so far this season. "It is just nice to be playing at the weekend," he said. "Hopefully, I have turned the corner."

After an opening 77 it was a good effort to make the cut and, of the 11 Europeans invited to the event, only Ian Woosnam and Seve Ballesteros failed to qualify. Ballesteros produced the amazing statistics of having 53 putts over two rounds compared to 104 shots to reach the greens.

Nick Faldo made it despite dropping four shots late on in his 75. Montgomerie also slipped away from a promising position, just two behind Ozaki with six to play, but the work the Scot has been doing with the rocket-scientist- turned-putting-coach Dave Pelz appears to be paying off. The most quoted statistic of the week has been that no one has ever made the Players' Championship their first win on the US tour.

Should Europe's No1 break that trend, it would be a sweet victory.

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