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westwood in pole position

Lee Westwood had hopefully banished the memory of five years ago when he took a one-stroke lead over Italian Francesco Molinari, Japan's Ryuji Imada and American Heath Slocum into the third round of The Players Championship in Florida today.

Westwood has been an infrequent visitor to golf's richest event, but in 2005 he was one of four halfway pacesetters -- and then shot 80. He eventually finished way down in 22nd place.

Now he stands 12 under par and with no other members of the world's top 10 in the leading 45 after two rounds -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson resumed nine strokes adrift -- the Englishman has become a strong favourite for the £1.1m first prize.

He would be the third successive European to lift the trophy if he pulls it off -- Henrik Stenson won last year and before him it was Sergio Garcia.

Westwood, of course, has had to endure more near-misses in big tournaments than anybody else recently.

Third in the last two majors of last season were followed by a runners-up finish to Mickelson in the Masters a month ago.

"I'm playing some of the best golf of my life, so I'm very relaxed out there," the 37-year-old said after his 65 yesterday. "I'm not doing much wrong. I keep putting myself in contention and I wouldn't keep doing it if it was hard on me psychologically.

"I've been through worse things than finishing second in major championships over the past 10 years, I can tell you that."

He did, of course, fall from fourth in the world in 2001 to outside the top 250, but has now climbed all the way back up to the same spot -- and will go to number three for the first time if he is in the top three tomorrow.

"I've come out of that bad time, which not a lot of players do, so I'm obviously pleased with myself that I've got back to being a world-class player again," said Westwood.

Only last week Westwood downgraded the Players from "the unofficial fifth major", as it is often called, to behind the four world championships in his own mind.

But after 12 years without a victory in America and not being a member of the US Tour, he knows the importance of taking this chance.

Molinari's brother Edoardo is better known in the States, but Francesco is the one who has chosen this event over the Italian Open and it is now a golden opportunity for him too.

Woods and Mickelson have both shot 70-71 so far, but it will take something special for them to get back into contention.

At least Woods has improved on last week's missed cut, but he still looks rusty, while Mickelson has just not delivered yet in a week that could have seen him achieve the number one spot for the first time.

"A very boring round -- I apologise to everyone," he said last night.

Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell are much better placed at eight under and seven under respectively, while Oliver Wilson stands three further back.

However, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Brian Davis were all knocked out on one under by a 13-foot birdie putt by American John Merrick in the penultimate group.

Justin Rose and Ross Fisher (level), Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington (one over) and Martin Laird (four over) also failed to make the cut.