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Players Championship: Ian Poulter leads as Tiger Woods stumbles

By Paul Mahoney

The ever so shy and retiring Ian Poulter once boasted that when he reached his potential, “it will just be me and Tiger.”

How Woods would now love to just be on a par with Poulter instead of trailing him by nine shots. Woods struggled to a two-over par 74 in the first round here. Milton Keynes' Poulter leads the Players Championship after cruising to a seven-under par 65. He is tied with Glasgow's Martin Laird who is now based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Poulter expressed relief at finally completing the construction of his new home in Orlando after two years and nine months of hassle with builders. "The stress is over, the family are happy, I feel like I'm back to normal." The 36-year-old who has slipped to world No 27 is now back to rebuilding his career.

Poulter's round exploded with six birdies in nine holes from the ninth that included nine consecutive single putts. He was so in the zone he had no idea he was on that extraordinary run until someone told him. "I think I've had 21 putts in a round before," he said. "Back in the good old days as a junior. You know, when you hole it from everywhere." Poulter said this 65 goes straight into his top 10 rounds. "I love the competition. I love the fight. I love the adrenaline. I love being in contention. And that's what I love the most," Poulter said.

He even allowed himself to think about what he'd do with the $1.7m (£1.05m) winner's cheque. "I'll buy another car," he said. "Ferrari Enzo. Been looking for one of them for a while. I think it will be a nice addition to the stable," he said. "A nice horse."

Poulter's stellar performance was all the more remarkable for his levels of concentration as yet another round of professional golf tipped over the five-hour mark for a threeball. "It's demanding out there," he said. "You have to be able to switch on and off." Not an easy task especially when one of his playing partners was Jason Day, who is so slow it is possible to watch his long locks and goatee beard grow as the seconds, minutes and hours tick away. The PGA Tour commissioner, Tim Finchem, said discussions are ongoing about how to speed up play but it seems like a case of too much talk, not enough action.

It is much the same with Woods. He keeps talking up a good game, but cannot deliver. His 74 contained three birdies trampled on by five bogeys. He is now in danger of missing the halfway cut at two tournaments in a row for the first time in his career. As Eric Morecambe said to Andre Previn: "I'm playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order."

Woods drove well enough with his three-wood so at least the fizz was back on the tee. But his irons were flat and mis-firing, and his once bulletproof short game is shot to pieces. He only hit nine greens in regulation and is ranked 80th on tour in the statistic that monitors how often players scramble to get down in two shots from 20 to 30 yards away from the green. "Any kind of momentum I would build, I would shoot myself in the foot on the very next hole," Woods said. "My good shots ended up in bad shots and my bad shots ended up in worse spots."

Tiger's grey shirt and trousers matched his mood and game as he was followed around by his own personal storm cloud on a perfect blue-sky day in Florida.

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