McIlroy rallies but Harrington slumps
AS Sergio Garcia soared and old-fashioned 'Tiger Roars' echoed around the Stadium Course, the Irish faltered at the Players Championship.
Credit is due to Rory McIlroy for recovering well from a mini-crisis in mid-round to post a level-par 72 which placed his hopes of winning the PGA Tour's most prestigious tournament on life-support.
Sadly, however, Ireland's great warhorse, Padraig Harrington, stumbled out of contention as a lame second-round 76 saw him squeeze through the cut on the mark, even par.
There was no such solace for Graeme McDowell, who missed the cut by two after he also shot a frustrating 76.
Garcia, the 2008 Players Champion, cornered much of the morning glory early yesterday as he took full advantage of benign conditions to post a brilliant 65, which propelled him into a one-stroke lead at 11-under.
Woods loomed large on 10-under after compiling a well-crafted 67 for the second day in succession. The breathtaking quality of some of his work sparked raw excitement among the massive galleries reminiscent of his golden years, like 2001, when he took his solitary win here.
Lee Westwood forced his way into contention alongside 2009 Players winner Henrik Stenson (67) and Kevin Chappell (66) on nine-under, a faultless 66 ensuring the Englishman completed the first 36 holes without a bogey on one of the most capricious courses in golf.
McIlroy missed the cut in his previous three visits to Sawgrass but a masterful 66 on Thursday, his first sub-par round here, suggested he now had the patience and strategic nous to pick his way around a devious Pete Dye creation which used confound him.
All looked well early yesterday when he rolled in an 11-foot putt for birdie at the par-five second hole.
Yet McIlroy's patience would be stretched to the limit after he got out of position off the tee at the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth holes, dropping shots at the latter three.
Still, he held his composure, creating a vital, morale-boosting birdie with a brilliant wedge to one inch at 10. Then, after watching his 26-foot birdie putt hang on the lip at 11, McIlroy blithely picked up at shot at 12th and showed his bottle with a cracking up-and-down for par at 13.
A couple more chances went a-begging on the way home, including a lip-out from 15 feet for birdie at 18, so McIlroy, tied 13th going into the weekend, will have to find a performance of Congressional or Kiawah proportions to overhaul Sergio, Tiger or Westwood on a course which will only get harder.
The green shoots which sprouted during Harrington's impressive 68 on Thursday withered yesterday as the Dubliner once again got stuck in an all-too-familiar rut.
His efforts mirrored those of last year, when Harrington followed up an encouraging first-round 69 with a 76. This time, however, the let-down was more pronounced after such a stirring performance in the first round.
Harrington hit 12 of 14 fairways on Thursday and missed the other two by inches. Despite missing several greens in regulation, for a few precious hours it seemed as if he had rediscovered the Picasso touch around and even on the greens.
The glasses he had worn in recent months were replaced by new contact lenses and, with that new belly putter anchored incongruously in his stomach, Harrington polished off an impressive series long-range chances in his first round.
Sadly, this mirage vanished overnight. Though he took six more putts yesterday (32) than on Thursday and had seven fewer one-putt greens (three against 10), yesterday's collapse certainly could not be blamed solely on his performance with that long putter.
Instead, Harrington struggled from tee to green, never really getting his ball close enough to the hole to make birdies or create momentum.
The pattern was set at the 10th hole, his first, where Harrington took a penalty drop after putting his tee shot into trouble in the trees.
As on Thursday, Harrington quickly rebounded from an early setback, pitching deftly to two feet from 39 yards for a birdie at the par-five 11th, but he would drop two more shots before the turn after finding trouble off the tee at 15 and 18.
An untidy six at the second was followed by his only glaring miss of the day, from five feet for birdie at the third. Harrington then ran into a brick wall at eight, making double-bogey five, after his ball came down in the hazard, remarkably, more than 50 yards short of the hole.
Westwood, inspired by three birdies in his final four holes on Thursday, rekindled that upbeat humour yesterday by chipping in for a fortuitous eagle from deep rough to the left of the green at 11, his second.
An eagle at the second hole, his 11th, helped ease Tiger past Westwood. Victory tomorrow would be Tiger's third in four events and fourth of the year.
Yet Garcia joined Tiger at the top by landing five phenomenal birdie putts in succession from the second, his 11th, then surged clear as he made it six in seven holes by holing a 40-foot 'bomb' on eight. With his putter in this form, the 33-year-old, sometimes world-weary Sergio looked almost like the precocious youth of yore.
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