Westwood's absence gives Donald his chance to shine at Sawgrass

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The Independent Online

Lee Westwood played golf in a charity event with Alan Shearer yesterday, will watch his beloved Nottingham Forest in the Championship play-offs tomorrow and will go to York races on Friday. Yes, it is fair to say he is not moping on the sofa, regretting his decision to skip this week's Players Championship, the richest event in golf.

The world No 1 elected to miss the £5.8m tournament that certain US officials would still call "the fifth major", because of his schedule and the strict limitations the PGA Tour puts on non-members. His absence and that of the world No 6 Rory McIlroy – for the same reasons – is plainly baffling to some in America. Not least Phil Mickelson.

"Everybody has got their own personal deal, but I disagree with their thought process," said the four-times major winner yesterday. Asked how the pair's absence would impact this event, Mickelson replied: "I don't think it does."

Luke Donald would not agree with the left-hander. "I think any time you don't have the No 1 ranked player it's going to weaken the field," said Westwood's countryman. "And Rory is top 10. But it's still an extremely strong event."

Donald has his own explanation for the stay-aways. "I know Lee has played here a few times," he said, referring primarily to Westwood's fourth-place last year. "But he just doesn't feel like it suits his game very well. So why play an event when you don't feel like you're going to get to it having a chance to win or feel comfortable in it?"

Why indeed? Although Donald, the world No 3 and, indeed, Mickelson, the No 4, could actually profit from Westwood's absence. If either win, they replace him as No 1. Meanwhile, Martin Kaymer, the No 2, requires only a top-two finish. Perhaps Donald has the best shout. With six top-10 placings in succession, he is undoubtedly the hottest player in the world and his second at the Heritage last month augurs well for the celebrated Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra, Florida.

As intriguing as the battle for No 1 is, Tiger Woods will, as ever, grasp most of the focus as he looks for his first win in 18 months – and a first Players title in a decade. Now down to eighth in the world, Woods is in action for the first time since finishing fourth in the Masters.