Westwood makes hay as Donald rides luck in 'fifth major'

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The Independent Online

Eighteen long and barren years stretch back to the day Sandy Lyle became the one and so far only European to win The Players Championship. Lee Westwood was a slightly podgy 13-year-old then, instead of the slightly podgy 31-year-old he is now, but the Englishman looked hungrier than anyone here yesterday to end this Sawgrass famine.

Eighteen long and barren years stretch back to the day Sandy Lyle became the one and so far only European to win The Players Championship. Lee Westwood was a slightly podgy 13-year-old then, instead of the slightly podgy 31-year-old he is now, but the Englishman looked hungrier than anyone here yesterday to end this Sawgrass famine.

A first-round 65, with seven birdies and not a bogey in sight, propelled the Worksop golfer to within one of the leader, Phoenix's Steve Jones, who has fairly risen from the ashes. And this was no one-man assault on America's so-called "fifth major" by Westwood, either, as two behind Jones, in a tie for fifth place, were his fellow Ryder Cup heroes, Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald, not forgetting Padraig Harrington, one further back. In between them and the unlikely pacesetter, however, happened to stand the American pairing of Fred Funk and Zach Johnson alongside Westwood. But this was no day to be negative.

It started positively enough, that's for sure, as Donald took advantage of playing in the first group out at 7am, with the untouched greens and soft conditions, to grab the early spoils.

A few things did go his way mind you. Indeed, the locals were somewhat cruelly calling him Lucky Luke last night after two pieces of outrageous fortune gave the crown prince of British golf the slings and arrows to fire his way to the upper reaches of the scoreboard. But Donald was not about to launch himself into some self-damning soliloquy. "Sometimes you need a few breaks," the 27-year-old said.

He had those, alright. The first came at the 447-yard 18th when his drive missed the watery grave on the left by the merest matter of inches, before hitting a railway sleeper and flying up the fairway at least 40 yards further than it otherwise would have. It should have been sponsored by Camelot.

The bonus ball rolled out on his final hole ­ the 9th ­ when his punched wedge from the snaking bunker, again on the left of the fairway, hit the branches of the trees canopying the sand, but somehow came out to eight feet of the pin.

"If it didn't hit the tree, I still think it would have been on the green, close," the Chicago-based 27-year-old asserted, although, in truth, the back trap appeared a more likely destination. "You need those moments of luck to post a round like that out here. It's a tough course, and it can bite you quite quickly and quite painfully."

A few hours later, however, it gave Westwood the golfing equivalent of a sloppy smacker as he made a welcome return to The Players Championship after a gap of two years when he set about reintroducing himself to the world's elite. He appeared comfortably back there yesterday, with seven birdies, no bogeys, and on the face of it a faultless round.

"Nah, I still managed to miss a three-footer on 16 and a three-footer on 18," he said. "But I'm happy. They were good conditions, no doubt about it, but the fine scoring today can also be put down to what it says on the wall over there." The words said "these guys are good". And it was hard to disagree with Westwood.

It was possible to wonder where the guys who were supposed to be "really good" were, however. Phil Mickelson's slice into the water on the 18th pegged him back to a 70, the same number as Tiger Woods, and it was only Vijay Singh who in any way lived up to his billing on five under. The final member of the Fab Four, Ernie Els, was hardly Ringo, losing his rhythm in a scrappy 71.

In contrast, Harrington was his usual paragon of consistency with just the solitary bogey spoiling the Irishman's card of 67. With two second-place finishes at Sawgrass in the past two years to his name, that score should have surprised nobody although in light of the fact that Europe's leading golfer had revealed on Wednesday that he would far rather not be here as his 72-year-old father, Paddy, fights a battle against inoperable cancer in a Dublin hospital, it was undeniably some feat.

As is his way, however, the Irishman who will decide next week whether he is up to making the trip to The Masters in two weeks' time, was refusing to allow sentiment to monopolise his tournament.

"If I'm going to play, I'm going to play," the world No 6 said. "It's not a motivational factor and I'll try to make sure it's not a detrimental thing. If I'm going to come out here all that way, I'd better focus on just doing my job."

Job done. As it had been for Jones. The 46-year-old won the US Open in 1996, but since then has done very little as he has struggled with persistent health problems.

In fact, Jones has been able to do so little of late that his world ranking (743rd) has slipped even lower than that of David Duval (585) whose 76 yesterday was far from the former Open champion's worst. "I have really been believing that something good was going to happen soon," said Jones, with disbelief in his eyes.

That was probably down to his incredible stretch from the 1st ­ his 10th ­ that yielded five birdies on the bounce and battered down his unerring path to eight-under.

In his latest vacation from the game with an elbow injury, Jones actually took up painting and decorating. A case of different strokes. And a lot less rewarding.

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