Westwood sizzles in the storms

Players' Championship: Sunshine state's weather frustrates world's best as they chase 'fifth major' ahead of Masters
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The Independent Online

Even the best Mother Nature had to throw at Sawgrass yesterday with her claps and her rumbles could not steal the thunder of Lee Westwood. Indeed, the 31-year-old rocked up a storm all of his very own as he shook off the frustration of yet more interruptions to take a leading role in The Players' Championship.

Even the best Mother Nature had to throw at Sawgrass yesterday with her claps and her rumbles could not steal the thunder of Lee Westwood. Indeed, the 31-year-old rocked up a storm all of his very own as he shook off the frustration of yet more interruptions to take a leading role in The Players' Championship.

And on the most prestigious golfing stage outside the majors, Westwood was joined by Graeme McDowell, the Ulsterman who is aiming to go one better than his Best Supporting Role prize as runner-up at Bay Hill last weekend. The 25-year-old had a second-round 66, with one bogey in a birdie-filled production, to move up to within four of Westwood, who was leader in the clubhouse at 10 under after a stirring 69.

Westwood would have been so relieved to be in that clubhouse, too, despite the soft greens and fairways making the Stadium Course as hospitable as it will ever be. After the washout of Good-For-The-Ducks Friday, as they were calling it around here, the best field of the golfing year had to suffer a three-hour break as another storm made its destructive way across Jacksonville. What it certainly wrecked was all but the most wildly optimistic hopes of a finish today. A sizeable contingent still have to complete their second rounds this morning, then comes the cut, then the final two rounds. Even though officials were considering reducing the "cut field" by 10 to 60, it would take an unprecedented amount of daylight to get the pack home.

Perhaps the PGA Tour know someone we do not, but even the highest deity might have considered it a leap of faith as the morning hiatus reduced those such as Westwood to seven holes. Fortunately for the 40,000-crowd who were thirsty for something other than the teeming rain, it was seven holes crammed full of action as the 31-year-old gained the lead, lost it and regained it once more. Phew. Maybe Westwood and Mother Nature could have got together and decided what on earth they were up to.

Ernie Els was not complaining, however, when he arrived in the mist yesterday morning to be told that, as the organisers were evoking the lift-and-place rules due to the sodden conditions, what little second-round play had been possible the day previous would be wiped out. The South African had looked long odds-on for a double bogey on the first on Friday after slicing his drive and hacking out - via Lee Janzen's shin, incidentally - into yet more trouble. Second chances do not often present themselves in golf, and the world No 3 was able to capitalise on this one as he scrambled to a 71 to scrape inside today's probable chop at two under.

It was anything but "Fab Four" form, however, and another member of golf's biggest hit-makers was also saying "Hello, Goodbye" to a couple of precious shots. Vijay Singh was at six under and joint fourth by the time he came to the 18th, his ninth. But then - "Help!" - he pulled not one but two shots into the lake lining the hole and his resulting quadruple-bogey eight made him stumble to a 74 at three under. Sergio Garcia's challenge was also heading south when two double bogeys at the 10th and 15th reduced the Spaniard to a 75, also on three under. Still, there were always the exploits of McDowell to cheer the Europeans, building on the impression he forged when collecting a cheque for £250,000 in Orlando, when fairly sluicing through the static field. Four birdies in a streak from the 12th - his third - catapulted him deep into contention county.

There awaiting him was the redoubtable figure of Westwood, who was off to a flyer with two quick birdies with putts of 25 feet and 10 feet. That put him one ahead of the overnight leader Steve Jones and fellow American Zach Johnson, who was to lead until finding the water on the last and falling back to nine under. Westwood was also to have his troubles on a course that remains mischievously malign even when it appears so blessedly benign. At the fourth, a pulled tee-shot forced the Nottinghamshire lad to chop out of the rough, which was bad enough, but was compounded when he plonked his third in the back trap. Westwood was suddenly back where he started. Seven under - and the good work spoilt.

In the only-too recent past, when Westwood's slump saw a hand-over-eyes hurtle down the world rankings, this double-bogey drama might have spiralled into a crisis, but fortunately Westwood is now back to his old, bold self and a 10-footer at the sixth and an 18-footer on the seventh effected a return to nine under. The Florida sun was now beating down on him.

If only. In reality, the klaxon was sounded moments after his ball found the dancefloor on the par-three eighth, and it was back to the locker-room. A few of the caddies were even seen whiling away the barren hours with a school of backgammon through the three-houyr delay. At 1.34pm the players were allowed back out and Westwood was throwing the dice with gay abandon once more.

A birdie from the bunker on the par-five 11th was followed by seven straight pars that were not quite as straightforward as they may sound, with a 20-footer on the 14th and an up-and-down on the 17th proving his spirit. There was a missed eight-footer on the last which slightly dulled the passion but at least Westwood was in, safe and dry. Small mercies on the tornado coast.

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