Battling McDowell hauls himself back into contention

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The Independent Online

Guts go a long way at Sawgrass, meaning Graeme McDowell should go a long way at Sawgrass. The Ulsterman displayed his customary fortitude yesterday to remain in contention at the halfway point of The Players Championship.

A 69 hauled McDowell to eight-under and two behind the leader David Toms. It was a satisfactory manner in which to follow up his opening 67, although what made it truly commendable was the fashion in which he bounced back from his back-nine mishaps. Three times he fell foul of the scorecard, and three times he responded with a birdie. The most notable came on the feared 18th when he guided in his approach to three feet.

That helped rid his memory bank of an unseemly double-bogey six on the 12th, the shortest par four on the course. Accuracy is everything off that tee, as McDowell discovered. But then, on the par-three 13th he struck his iron to 18 inches and so the narrative was set. That was one of seven birdies for the world No 5, who believes his game has finally clicked after a session with his coach, Pete Cowen. Three missed cuts in four events have inevitably played heavily on his mind.

"Crazy things go through your head, like 'Will I ever been in contention again, am I done, am I finished?'" he confessed. "Sports psychologists say don't wait for the golf ball to make you happy; try and go out there and be happy. But the way my golf ball has been flying, it's been pretty tough to be happy. So I realise my technique has been the biggest problem. I really have been swinging it badly. It feels good to go out there and make some swings, see the shots, execute them. It gives me confidence."

If McDowell can reduce the error count at the weekend then he could well lift his third American title in a year, having began his dream run on Stateside with victory in the US Open. This is such a welcome return to form with his major defence just five weeks away.

However, "the fifth major" – as some Americans quaintly call The Players – is still a big ask. In a tie for third alongside McDowell is his Ryder Cup partner Luke Donald. Lee Westwood may be at Wembley today watching the FA Cup final, and Donald is in Florida. But believe it, the latter will have the former in his sights. A win would give Donald the world No 1 berth currently held by Westwood and on the evidence of yesterday's 67 that possibility is a live one. Rather incredibly, he became the first player in seven years to avoid taking a bogey in the first two rounds at The Players.

And then there is Tiger Woods, also absent but also still very much a talking point. After his withdrawal following just nine holes in the opening round, doubts continue to intensify over his participation in the US Open at Congressional and July's Open Championship at Sandwich. Woods, himself, was unable to put any sort of timeframe on his return from his latest injury to his left knee, causing yet more consternation.

"I think his whole future is up in the air," said Butch Harmon, who was his coach for 10 years. "Does this mean he needs more surgery? If he does, who knows what will happen."

Harmon's concern is understandable. Woods has undergone four operations on his left knee, the last of which, three years ago, was radical reconstruction which was supposed to solve the weakness once and for all. It has blatantly failed on that score. He was sidelined for four and a half weeks after injuring his knee and Achilles at The Masters, but the break was clearly not long enough.