Any big-time leader board should not consider itself worthy of the description if it does not feature Lee Westwood on one of its premier rungs. The Englishman, who has finished in the top three in each of the last three majors, yesterday restated his penchant for golf's most prestigious events by marching into the second-round lead of the Players Championship yesterday.
While Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington and Justin Rose all missed the cut, and Tiger Woods again produced a mixed bag – the beleaguered world No 1 did, however, make it through to the weekend – Westwood added a sparkling seven-under-par 65 to his opening 67 to wrest the clubhouse advantage in golf's richest event.
His day's work in Jacksonville was so reminiscent of his performance at the Masters last month, where only an inspired Phil Mickelson denied him the major he deserves. On 12 under, the world No 4 was only two short of the tournament's 36-hole record set by Greg Norman in 1994. From tee to green, Westwood is quite clearly the best in the world at the moment and yet again he was peerless in this regard.
"This course sets up like a major championship in a way, when you have it in your mind to play away from certain sucker flags," said the 37-year-old. "You have to use your brain and a bit of experience. It's a good position to be in. Sunday night is the best time to lead but any time in the tournament is a good time to lead."
Westwood was wise not to get ahead of himself as he was just one stroke in front of Japan's Ryuji Imada and also Francesco Molinari, whose decision to play in Florida rather than at his home Italian Open was paying handsome dividends. Molinari matched Westwood's round as he continued his bid to go one better than his brother Edoardo's runner-up finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando two months ago.
Rose, on the other hand, went in the water for a closing bogey that was to cost him his place on level par, Harrington got a ball stuck up a tree four holes from home and McIlroy, also finishing on one over, failed to find the inspiration of last week's maiden US Tour triumph. There was always a danger that his remarkable final-round 62 at last week's Quail Hollow Championship would take too much out of the 21-year-old, and so it proved.
As for Woods, who blew out by eight shots with a horrid 79 the previous Friday, he had five birdies, but also two bogeys and a double-bogey. That translated into a one-under 71 to leave him on three under. He was nine behind Westwood and maybe it says so much about his current expectations that he seemed anything but distraught at being cast so far adrift.
Woods missed the cut last week and was widely tipped to miss two in a row for the first time in his career. But showing the fight that was conspicuously lacking in Charlotte, he bounced back from four bogeys and a double-bogey to ensure he will make the ninth and 10th competitive rounds of his comeback following a five-month absence. Typical of Woods, he was not prepared to write off his chances.
"Got to keep plodding along, this golf course, anything can happen," he said. "There are guys that can make threes and guys that can make sixes on the same hole."
Mickelson can leapfrog Woods at the top of the world rankings if he wins and Woods fails to make the top five. However, just like Woods he hit a 71 to lie at three under.