English pair fired up to leave Rory McIlroy in the shade
Americans will get a taste of a full English as Luke Donald and Lee Westwood tee off together in their quest to become the first Englishman to win the Players Championship in its 38-year history. Scotland's Sandy Lyle in 1987 remains the only Brit to claim victory in the US Tour's marquee championship.
Donald and Westwood, the world's No 2 and No 3, will be joined by American Bill Haas in a group that, despite their world ranking, will draw more tumbleweed than crowd as the locals stalk the stellar pairings of Tiger Woods, Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler, or Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker.
“Two English guys in Sawgrass, I'm not sure that's going to produce a huge crowd or not,” Donald said diplomatically. “Bill Haas might bring more people than us,” he added to much laughter.
Westwood chose to skip this event last year and Donald expressed surprise at that decision.
“I don't really know the politics behind why not,” he said.
“Perhaps it was a stand against, well if you're not going to play Wentworth (venue for the BMW PGA Championship, the equivalent event on the European Tour), we are not going to play the Players Championship. That's just me guessing.”
Donald might get the answer he's not particularly looking for when they meet on the first tee today.
The handshake might be of the vice variety. Westwood got to hear about Donald's comments and offered up his reason, and regret, for not playing last year.
“I'm a little bit puzzled why people are still asking why I wasn't here last year,” Westwood said.
“I don't see everybody playing this year. I haven't heard that hardly mentioned. I sat and watched it on TV and missed not being here,” adding that he had committed to play in Indonesia and Korea. At least they are both here this week, unlike the top American players who will be noticeable by their absence at Wentworth in two weeks.
Donald challenged them to venture across the Atlantic to Surrey to compete in the BMW PGA Championship. “It's considered our Players Championship. I would have thought that would incite some interest in some of the big Americans that would be exempt for it,” Donald said.
However, he added: “I can see there are reasons not to play it. You don't have to travel far (in the States) to play in a $6m event at a great course.”
Meanwhile, Tiger Woods has admitted that he would rather not have the challenge of the famous 17th at Sawgrass.
The penultimate hole on the Stadium Course is hugely popular with spectators as, apart from a small path to the green, the putting surface is surrounded by water, offering little room for error and a heavy punishment for inaccuracy.
Forty tee shots found the water during last year's Players Championship, down sharply from the 93 balls that ended up in the lake in 2007.
But Woods, while a fan of the hole, believes its placement as the penultimate hole with little chance of recovery from a mistake, means it is in the wrong place on the course.
“I understand the premise behind it. It's dramatic. But I just think that as a par-three, I just don't think it should be that, as the 17th. Great eighth hole or maybe something early in the back nine but maybe I'm more of a traditionalist in that regard,” Woods said ahead of today's opening round.
“As a great finishing hole, I'm not in that opinion, but I think the collection of holes, 16th, 17th and 18th is the most dramatic that I think we play out here on tour.”
Woods remains confident he can find his best form despite many doubters, including Nick Faldo and Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee.
“Guys, I’ve done this before,” Woods told the media. “I’ve been through this. Actually, a lot of you guys lived it with me, went through those periods where I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be.
“I had some pretty good runs after that, and this is no different. It takes a little bit of a time, and I keep building and things eventually come around to where they feel natural and efficient.
“I think that’s probably the most important word, is that you get out there and you feel efficient in what you’re doing.
“I can understand that everyone has an opinion, and he’s entitled to his. But he’s no longer playing anymore, so, so be it,” Woods said of Chamblee, who won once in 380 starts in his PGA Tour career. As for Faldo’s comments on his self-belief?
“I always find it interesting since they’re not in my head,” Woods said. “They must have some kind of superpower I don’t know about.”