Graeme McDowell leads Irish challenge at Players Championship

Former US Open champion posts an opening 69 while Rory McIlroy has to settle for a 70 at TPC Sawgrass


Graeme McDowell led the Irish charge after the first round at TPC Sawgrass yesterday when he finished his first round with a three-under par 69 to lie six shots behind the clubhouse leader Martin Kaymer.

Three birdies on the back nine left McDowell one shot better than Rory McIlroy, who slipped from being joint leader at five under par to two under for his round.

Where McDowell, a notorious grinder, knocked out three birdies on the back nine, McIlroy’s round unravelled somewhat down the straight.

Four birdies
The two-time Major champion, who played the back nine first, turned in an encouraging 33 after four birdies and a bogey to leave him at three under par.

McIlroy then birdied the first and second holes after the turn, which were his 10th and 11th, to go to five under and joint leader before dropping back a shot at the par three third hole. His approach from the tee missed the green to the left and he failed to get up and down for his par.

That seemed to start the back nine decline for McIlroy as he added bogeys on the sixth and eighth to finish with a 70, a shot adrift of McDowell, who completed his back nine in an impressive 33.

“I played really solid for the first 11 holes but let a few shots get away from me at the end,” said McIlroy. “Guys are going low so 70 is going to be pretty average by the end of the day but I feel like my game is in good enough shape that I can go out tomorrow and shoot something in the 60s.

“It’s a course that has frustrated me in the past but I feel like I learnt how to play it last year. I’m coming in disappointed with a 70 when maybe a couple of years ago I would have been happy.”

Lee Westwood shrugged off an unusually early start to lead the European challenge for a rare victory at Sawgrass.

Westwood hit the opening tee shot of golf’s so-called ‘fifth major’ at 7.15 local time, but showed no ill-effects to compile a flawless five-under-par 67.

That score was matched 10 minutes later by Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and then equalled by compatriot Sergio Garcia and US Open champion Justin Rose to boost the chances of just a fourth European win in 41 attempts.

“It’s probably been about 21 years since I was the first ball in the air at a tournament,” said Westwood. The 41-year-old Englishman, who won his 41st worldwide title in Malaysia last month, birdied the first, second and sixth to reach the turn in 33 and also picked up shots at the 12th and 16th before safely negotiating the iconic 17th.

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