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Hangover for weary McIlroy

IT WAS no surprise that Rory McIlroy looked a little jaded after his heroics at the Quail Hollow Championship last weekend as he could only manage a one over par 73 at the Players Championship at Sawgrass.

Four days after his stunning maiden USPGA victory, which was followed by his 21st birthday on Tuesday, the Holywood youngster, the youngest competitor in the tournament, could be forgiven for being off-form.

Europe's No1 Lee Westwood has not won in America since 1998. But the Englishman has given himself another chance to end that after starting at Sawgrass, like Luke Donald, with a five under par 67.

They resumed the sport's richest event today in joint third place, a stroke behind Australian Robert Allenby and American JB Holmes.

Phil Mickelson, the only person to beat Westwood at the Masters last month, is three further back and so is world No1 Tiger Woods after he hit back from last week's dire-looking 79 at Quail Hollow.

Westwood was going brilliantly well until he came to the long 16th. Hoping for a four that would have put him in the joint lead he instead found the lake with his second and ran up a bogey six. However, Westwood finished just like Donald did with a birdie on the 462-yard last.

Woods and McIlroy both drove in the water there for bogeys but, despite some other far from impressive shots, Woods still felt he had done enough to hit back at his critics.

"People need to be a little bit more realistic," he stated to those who were saying his swing had become a complete mess. "I'd had six competitive rounds (entering this week) in seven months. It takes time. It takes tournaments.

"I've felt like I've done some good work even though reports are I was hitting it all over the lot. I was very excited about what was happening."

There has been speculation that he has even ditched coach Hank Haney, but on that Woods commented: "Hank and I talk every day, so nothing's changed. According to the press I've fired him five times by now over the course of my four years or whatever it was."

Mickelson will become No1 for the first time if he wins and Woods is outside the top five, but on his own admission he did not play at all well and was happy to get out of the round with a 70 that keeps the hope alive.

Two days after his 21st birthday, McIlroy searched in vain for the magic he had for his triumphant 62 on Sunday but, having made the cut there with nothing to spare, he knows anything is possible.

Fellow Irishman Pádraig Harrington will have to cling onto such hope as he had a grim day on the greens at Sawgrass as, like McIlroy, he opened with a one-over 73. The Dubliner had to wait until the par three 13th for his first birdie.

The Dubliner's two dropped shots came out of a greenside bunker at the par-five second and after he'd pushed his second into the water at the long 11th.

Donald's control of the ball came to the fore again, while the 69s of the last two winners Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia were matched by Ross Fisher in one of his best rounds in what has been a quiet season so far.

Playing with Woods was Ian Poulter, golf's other World Match Play champion, and he had to settle for a level par 72 like Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell and Brian Davis. Most disappointed was Greg Owen. Three under after 16 he then dumped two balls in the lake at the famous short 17th and ran up a quadruple bogey seven.