McIlroy battles to stay in hunt

Hopes of a first Irish victory in the so called ‘fifth Major’, the $9.5 million Players Championship at Sawgrass, faded last night as Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell, all of whom were favourably positioned after Thursday’s opening round, struggled to keep in touch with the leaders.

Harrington shot a disappointing four-over 76 to finish on the likely cut mark of level par. McIlroy dropped three shots in a row from the seventh to fall seven off the pace at four under, while the usually reliable McDowell gave away three strokes through the opening nine before a double-bogey at 12 appeared to have sealed his fate.

McIlroy, however, kept plugging away in commendable fashion and a brilliant wedge approach to the 10th spun back to within an inch of the cup.

“That would certainly have put the wheels back on the bike,” commented European Ryder Cup team captain Paul McGinley from his commentary position.

McIlroy still had time to make up his six-stroke deficit, but the trio had failed to keep in touch with leaders Sergio Garcia, Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood, all of whom enjoyed a great day in the glorious Florida sunshine. Garcia moved to the top of the leaderboard with a superb 65 for 11 under, one ahead of Woods and two clear of American Kevin Chappell and Lee Westwood.

The 34 year-old Spaniard captured the Players Championship five years ago and it remains the most significant victory of his career given that he retains the tag of being the best player in the world never to have won a Major. Significantly he wasn’t getting ahead of himself where actually claiming another title was concerned.

“I made a bunch of putts on the back nine including five birdies in a row,” he reported. “This is one of my favourite courses and that usually helps. My game is good, but nothing spectacular.”

Woods has already won three tournaments this year and yesterday’s 67 was compiled with so little difficulty that few will be surprised should he emulate his Players Championship win of 2001.

He obviously liked his chances, but had one or two reservations.

“The hard part is that there isn’t a lot of grass on the greens,” said Tiger. “Even though the guys are wearing soft spikes, they’re leaving some large chunks out there. I’ve put myself in the shake-up but 36 holes on this golf course is a long way to go.”

Westwood’s 66 for nine under and the quality of his ball striking suggest he should be very much in the hunt come the final nine holes tomorrow. He might have been unsettled by missing a four-footer at the 10th, his first, but he was four under for the next three and very much on the right road. He finished with a 66 to join Chappell on nine under.

Harrington battled hard to be as positive as ever regardless of his score, but accepting a four-over-par 76 must have been all the tougher given that at the same time of day, the likes of Garcia, Woods, Chappell, Westwood and holder Matt Kuchar were all dipping at least five shots under regulation.

Westwood’s comment that “the course was there for the taking this morning” would have sounded particularly unpalatable to Harrington.

The Dubliner’s regrettable knack of running up double bogeys continues to haunt him.

After making eagle at the second on Thursday, he took five at the par-three third. And it was another five at a short hole yesterday, this time the eighth, his 17th, that pushed him back to level par and with a long time to wait before his fate was decided.


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