Slowly but surely Lee Westwood is recovering the aura of old

 

Sawgrass

This was a twirly stick day for Lee Westwood, when the shots he likes, and there were plenty of those on the second day at The Players, are finished off with an extravagant flourish of the club. It is the golfing equivalent of ’ave it, and not unique to Westwood. It is just that we have seen too little of it of late.

The late flowering of Thursday evening, when Westwood closed a day of grind with three birdies in his last four holes, continued at his second hole, the 11th on the card, with a chipped eagle. The ball bounced once then in. Had it missed he was in the bunker and looking at a bogey. Such are the margins at the top of the game.

Westwood was five under for his round at the turn. Another birdie at the 2nd hole, his 11th, gave him a share of the lead. He made almost everything on the greens, seven single putts in the opening 13 holes, staggering for a player not known for majesty with the flat stick.

Since the move to America last December, Westwood claims the improvements in his short game are commensurate with the weather. While there is some truth in that, skill does not explain all in a past-time defined as much by intangibles as technique. Westwood has taken tough courses apart across the world, but not at a big event. A win here would be the most important in a career that boasts more than 40 victories worldwide.

At the back end of 2011 at the Amata Golf Club in Bangkok, not unlike Sawgrass in its infatuation with water, he opened with a 60 and a 64 to set up a commanding win at the Thailand Golf Championship. Playing partner Charl Schwartzel, Masters champion that year, was left shaking his head at the wonder of it all. Westwood has come close in the majors. No one has more top-10s in the past five years. Perhaps this will be the week he chalks up a big one at the richest tournament on the roster.

Apologies for the Americanism. It’s catching, like Westwood’s goatee. The overnight leader Roberto Castro had yet to tee off. Rory McIlory, second overnight, was on the range, too. The threat on the course was significant enough. Tiger Woods, playing three groups behind, had moved alongside at nine under with an eagle at the 2nd hole, his 11th. Sergio Garcia joined them with a fourth successive birdie at the 5th.

Given the copious citing of scoreboards at every hole, Westwood would have been aware of the complexion of the leaderboard, not that he needed neon bulletins to feel the presence of Woods this season.

The world No 1 is recovering by increments the aura of old. A victory here would be his third in four events and fourth of the year, insane given that this is only his sixth strokeplay event on the PGA Tour in 2013. A  birdie at the 4th took Woods to 10 under par and the lead outright. Same old, same old.  

Garcia followed him with a fifth birdie on the bounce at the 6th. It was all happening. Westwood required a couple of testing par saves to keep his ship on course, all part of the job. His tee shot at the 8th, a brutal 235-yard par-three, was all over the pin but took a hefty bounce to the left off the bank protecting the flag to take birdie out of the equation. That left him the par-five 9th to join Woods and Garcia at the top of the leaderboard.

Only once this week had he failed to take advantage of the four long holes, yesterday morning at 16 when he chunked his chip out of the Bermuda grass after uncharacteristically pulling his approach.

At 583 yards the 9th is the longest hole on the course, out of reach in two for most. Westwood gave himself every chance with a birdie putt from inside 10 feet. This one stayed out. Pity, but a 66 is never going to spoil a day. He has yet to card a bogey in two rounds. As he signed for his card he learned that Garcia had gone two clear with a birdie at the eighth. “Long way to go,” he said.

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