Florida: Lee Westwood moved one stroke ahead in the Players Championship second round on Friday while Tiger Woods battled to avoid missing a second successive cut.
On another surprisingly calm day with receptive conditions at the TPC Sawgrass, world number four Westwood eagled the par-five 16th en route to a sparkling seven-under-par 65 at the tournament dubbed the ‘fifth major’.
The Englishman broke clear at the top of a congested leaderboard by rolling in a 19-foot birdie putt at the par-four seventh, his third-last hole, to post a 12-under total of 132.
That left Westwood a stroke in front of Japan’s Ryuji Imada (66), Italian Francesco Molinari (65) and American Heath Slocum (66).
US Open champion Lucas Glover was a further two shots back at nine under after a flawless 65 that also featured an eagle on 16.
World number one Woods, playing only his third event since his private life was left in tatters following a sex scandal, ground out a 71 to lie nine strokes off the pace.
Although his driving was erratic, the 14-times major champion recorded five birdies along with two bogeys and a double-bogey at the difficult 14th.
“I wasn’t quite as sharp today as I was yesterday,” Woods told reporters after finding only eight of 14 fairways off the tee.
“I felt like I putted better but unfortunately I was just a little bit too far away from the holes. Most of the putts I had were just outside that birdie range.”
A week after missing the cut by a staggering eight shots at the Quail Hollow Championship in North Carolina, Woods at least avoided the embarrassment of a second consecutive early exit.
“I’ve just got to keep plodding along,” the 34-year-old American said. “On this golf course anything can happen. You can make some big numbers here quick.”
Westwood, whose only PGA Tour victory came at the 1998 New Orleans Classic, was delighted to be in position to clinch one of golf’s most prestigious titles.
“A Players victory would be incredibly important,” said the 37-year-old, who has recorded top-three finishes in the last three majors. “You want to play well in the biggest tournaments and this is one of the biggest tournaments.”
US Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who could take over as world number one for the first time if he wins this week and Woods finishes outside the top five, carded a 71 to end the day level with his American rival.
“I’m trying to get three or four birdies to get in contention, not just make it to the weekend,” the left-hander said after parring his first nine holes. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get it going but there’s two more rounds.”
The cut fell at two under with 70 players advancing. Among those missing out were multiple major winners Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy, who won his maiden PGA Tour title last week at Quail Hollow.
For a while, it seemed those at one under would squeeze through but late in the day American John Merrick holed a 13-foot birdie putt at the last to eliminate Masters champion Angel Cabrera, British Open winner Stewart Cink and former world number one Vijay Singh among others.