Beaten back, Westwood keeps battling

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The dust had yet to settle from an exhilarating yet excruciating run at the Masters when Lee Westwood was faced with a different kind of debris: ash from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Back home in England following his near miss at Augusta National, where he battled eventual winner Phil Mickelson on the back nine before finishing 3 strokes back, Westward was denied a Barbados vacation due to planes being grounded throughout the United Kingdom.

None of it has thrown Westwood off his game.

He is looking at the positives of his runner-up finish at the Masters -- the fourth time in the past two years that he has finished among the top three in a major championship -- as well as having to skip a planned holiday prior to last week's Quail Hollow Championship.

"I would have come here 9 pounds heavier as well as rusty," said Westwood, who did neither.

The No. 4-ranked player in the world is both fit and in form, and building off the success he had at the Masters. He added a 7-under-par 65 on Friday at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course to his opening-round 67 to take the 36-hole lead at the Players Championship.

"I keep coming back, don't I," Westwood said after finishing 2 strokes off the 36-hole tournament record. "Don't keep knocking me. I'm not going to go away. I'm just going to keep trying until one of them goes my way."

Westwood, 37, a 20-time winner on the European Tour, has been a consistent performer on golf's biggest stage in recent times.

He finished a shot out of a playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open won by Tiger Woods. Westwood three-putted the final green last summer at Turnberry to miss the Stewart Cink-Tom Watson playoff. The Brit was tied for third at last year's PGA Championship, and was the 54-hole leader last month at the Masters.

Westwood led the field in greens in regulation at Augusta and has hit 29 of 36 through two rounds here. And he schooled the youngsters who played with him for the first two rounds, beating 21-year-old Rickie Fowler by 15 strokes and 22-year-old Jason Day by 14.

"I'm not doing much wrong," Westwood said. "I keep putting myself in contention and come pretty close in four of the last six majors or something like that. I won the money list in Europe last year and performed pretty well when the pressure was on in the last event and then played well here, so what can you do? That's all I'm trying to do, just keep performing like that."

Whether he holds the Players Championship in the same regard as other big tournaments is the subject of some humor -- although not necessarily to the PGA Tour.

Last week at Quail Hollow, Westwood was asked about the Players Championship and the longtime debate about whether it is the so-called "fifth major."

"I think the Players probably used to be regarded as the fifth major, and it felt that way back in the late '90s," Westwood said. "But since the invention of the World Golf Championships, I think it's actually stepped back from that. They have to go in now before the Players Championship.

"So what is it, eighth on the list now?"


You can certainly argue the merits of the Players and where it ranks among the biggest tournaments, but any subjective look makes it difficult to place the event behind the World Golf Championship events, which have limited fields and no cuts.

The Players traditionally attracts one of the strongest fields in golf, with 145 players and a whopping $9.5 million purse, and $1.71 million going to the winner.

Westwood is not a PGA Tour member -- nor was Henrik Stenson when he won last year -- so perhaps his thinking is skewed a bit.

And maybe the course had something to do with it. The TPC has its detractors and Westwood, after a tie for fifth in 1998 and a tie for sixth in 1999, has not placed in the top 10 since. He didn't even play in the tournament last year, despite being eligible.

His tune has changed somewhat this week.

"It's always one I've looked forward to playing," Westwood said. "You get that sort of little tingle when the Players Championship is getting close."

Halfway through the tournament, Westwood leads by a stroke over Ryuji Imada, Heath Slocum and Franceso Molinari.

The closest player to him on the leaderboard ranked among the top 10 in the world? Woods, who is tied for 46th and 9 strokes back.

"I try and get myself right showing up for the biggest tournaments, so that's the major championships, the World Golf Championships and this one, and the [BMW] PGA Championship at Wentworth [on the European Tour] in a couple of weeks' time.

"As you get older, it gets harder to peak all the time when you want to. So you have to pick and choose, and you want to play well in the biggest tournaments. It's nice to come out the first two days and shoot 12 under and be in contention."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.