Players Championship: Lee Westwood overcomes rare early start to move into contention

Briton compiles a flawless five-under-par 67 at Sawgrass

A rejuvenated Lee Westwood shrugged off an unusually early start to lead the European challenge at the Players Championship.

Westwood hit the opening tee shot of golf's so-called fifth major, but showed no ill effects to compile a flawless five-under-par 67 at Sawgrass in Florida.

That score was matched 10 minutes later by Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and then equalled by compatriot Sergio Garcia and US Open champion Justin Rose to boost the chances of just a fourth European win at the event in 41 attempts.

American Russell Henley held the clubhouse lead after a 65 which saw him recover from a double bogey on the seventh with six birdies in a back nine of 30.

"It's probably been about 21 years since I was the first ball in the air at a tournament," Westwood told reporters after his round, a reference to the fact that top players are usually drawn into certain groups which take television times into account.

The 41-year-old Englishman, who won his 41st worldwide title in Malaysia last month, birdied the first, second and sixth to reach the turn in 33 and also picked up shots at the 12th and 16th before safely negotiating the iconic 17th.

The island-green par three is the hole which cost Garcia his chance of victory last year when he found himself tied for the lead with Tiger Woods with two holes remaining, the 2008 champion dumping two balls into the water to run up a quadruple-bogey seven and gift the American the win.

The incident at least took some of the focus away from the frosty relationship – or lack of it – between the pair, which had become a matter of public record.

"I think it's over. I think it's past," Garcia said. "I didn't think I was a villain but I think that we've all moved ahead of that. I certainly have. I'm just looking forward to now and hopefully what's coming soon."

Lee Westwood watches his tee shot on the fifth hole during yesterday’s first round Lee Westwood watches his tee shot on the fifth hole during yesterday’s first round (Getty Images)
Speaking about his round, the 34-year-old added: "It was a nice day, no doubt. I started very well, obviously got to six under after 13 and it was just a shame I hit a good putt on five for par that unfortunately lipped out.

"I then had a couple of chances that I didn't convert but I can't be disappointed with five under."

Rose was even more pleased with that score after carding six birdies and one bogey despite what he termed an "awful" practice session beforehand.

"It was one of those weird days in the game of golf," Rose said. "I had not much feel of anything that I was doing to be honest with you, and having played quite well recently, it was a bit of an out-of-the-blue moment. Sometimes it lowers your expectations."

With Woods unable to defend his title after undergoing back surgery just before the US Masters, four players started the event with the chance to overtake the 14-time major winner as world No 1.

Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar were all among the later starters, but former number one Rory McIlroy completed a 70, while fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell recovered from two over to return a 69.

McIlroy was five-under par after 11 holes but dropped shots at the third, sixth and eighth and said: "I played really solid for the first 11 holes but let a few shots get away from me at the end.

"Guys are going low so 70 is going to be pretty average by the end of the day, but I feel like my game is in good enough shape that I can go out tomorrow and shoot something in the 60s."

Scotland's Stephen Gallacher matched McIlroy's 70 on his tournament debut courtesy of a back nine of 33.

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