PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Lee Westwood doesn’t rate The Players Championship as the fifth major, but he’s sure playing like it is.
The 37-year-old Englishman has been on the cusp of breaking through with his first major over the two years — he was one putt away from playoffs in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and the British Open at Turberry. He was a distant third at the PGA Championship last year, and was runner-up to Phil Mickelson last month at the Masters.
He can make golf look simple, and such was the case Friday when he posted a 7-under 65 to build a one-shot lead going into the weekend over Heath Slocum, Ryuji Imada and TPC Sawgrass newcomer Francesco Molinari of Italy.
“As you get older, it gets harder to peak all the time when you want to,” Westwood said. “You have to pick and choose your ones, and you want to play well in the biggest tournaments. And this is one of the biggest tournaments.”
There’s a chance it might finally start playing like one.
Westwood was at 12-under 132, the lowest score to lead after 36 holes at The Players Championship since 1994, when Greg Norman was at 14 under on his way to setting the 72-hole record.
But as the wind picked up and the temperatures rose late in the afternoon, there were signs that Sawgrass was starting to get firm after two days of relatively soft conditions.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will be around for the weekend, which is about all that could be said for golf’s two biggest stars. Woods overcame one tee shot that flew off to the right at a 45-degree angle and gave him double bogey for a 1-under 71. Mickelson flirted with the cut line late in the day until making a tough chip look easy for birdie on the 16th. He also shot a 71.
They were at 3-under 141, nine shots behind.
That might be too far back on a course where there already have been 73 rounds in the 60s, the most after two days on the Stadium Course since 1993. But with more heat and more wind, the final two days could be as unpredictable as ever.
“Because the character of the course is changing so much from the morning to the afternoon, the guys that are 2-, 3-, 4-under par are in the tournament,” Mickelson said. “Because if they shoot 6-, 7-, 8-under par, they’re going to move right up the leaderboard. And it’s going to be difficult for the leaders to pull away.”
Calgary’s Stephen Ames is also nine shots back after firing a 71, while Mike Weir of Bright’s Grove, Ont., missed the cut with a 74.
It’s going to be really hard for major champions like Angel Cabrera, Stewart Cink, Vijay Singh and defending champion Henrik Stenson to make any move at all.
They were among 15 players poised to make the cut on the number at 1-under 143 until John Merrick make a birdie putt just outside 12 feet on the final hole to knock them out.
That tied the tournament record for the lowest cut at 142.
Westwood, who described Sawgrass as a “very close to a major championship test,” caused some consternation among PGA Tour brass last week when asked how an international player who is not a PGA Tour member regards The Players Championship. He put it behind the four majors and three World Golf Championships, suggesting it was No. 8 on his list.
But he has left no doubt how dearly he would love to win it.
“It’s all very easy at the moment,” caddie Billy Foster said about Westwood’s game.
The hard part will be keeping his nose in front of a crowded leaderboard.
Slocum had perhaps the most impressive round of the day with a 66 in the afternoon, when balls started bouncing through some of the greens. He ran off three birdies to start his round and finished without a bogey on his card.
He has never finished better than a tie for 44th at this event.
“I’ve felt good about my game for a while now,” Slocum said. “It’s just putting four rounds together and finishing a golf tournament.”
Molinari had a 65 without a bogey in the morning, and suddenly his first trip to Sawgrass. The Italian Open is being held this week in his hometown, and brother Edoardo turned down this tournament to play at home.
“Everything seems in the right place,” he said.
The scoring is so low that Robert Allenby had a 70 to reach 8 under and shook his head as he saw the front page of the leaderboard, which was missing his name. Was it all that unusual?
“At this place? Yes,” he said. “Normally, 8 under is leading. But it’s because the conditions are super soft.”
That was the lone complaint, even among players who were in contention. Despite a few bursts of rain earlier in the week, the weather seems to suit hard, fast conditions. But north Florida had a harsh winter, and it has been difficult to grow grass.
“The greens are definitely softer than we’re used to, and I’d even say a little slower,” Lucas Glover said after a 65, his best score by a mile on this track. Glover had not shot better than 75 in his four previous trips to the TPC Sawgrass. He was at 9-under 135.
Woods has never missed consecutive cuts — he’s missed only six for his career — and it wasn’t until a solid back nine that he was secure for the weekend. He hit a drive into the trees on the par-5 11th hole and made bogey, then hit his three-wood so far right on the 14th that it landed in the middle of a pond on the 12th hole.
But for every mistake came enough birdies to keep him around par, and keep him at Sawgrass for two more days.
“I wasn’t quite as sharp today as I was yesterday,” Woods said. “Got to keep plodding along on this golf course. Anything can happen.”