• AFP-JIJI

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England’s Lee Westwood, feeling “calm and in control,” fired six birdies in a round of six-under-par 66 on Friday to seize a one-shot lead over compatriot Matthew Fitzpatrick in The Players Championship.

The 47-year-old, who was the 54-hole leader at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week on the way to a runner-up finish behind Bryson DeChambeau, said he carried his confidence from Bay Hill to TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

“I’ve regrouped,” Westwood said. “I’ve still got the memories of last week, of playing well and hitting good shots when I needed to, but there’s no hangover from last week.

“It’s a feel-good experience for me this week, and I’ve carried that into the first two rounds.”

On a course where some of the game’s best were struggling — defending champion Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland was among those who missed the cut — Westwood was rarely in danger on the way to a nine-under-par total of 135.

Westwood opened with back-to-back birdies at the 10th and 11th. He moved atop the leaderboard with a run of three straight birdies at the second, third and fourth, rolling in a 30-footer at the par-three third.

After a tricky downhill five-footer to save par at the eighth, he rolled in a five-foot birdie putt at the par-five ninth.

“Hit it well off the tee. Hit quite a lot of fairways,” Westwood said. “My iron shots were good. I played away from flags when I needed to. Got suckered into a couple of pins, but short game bailed me out on those.

“Chipping and bunker play all felt good and rolled the ball well on the greens. I had fun out there, felt calm and in control.”

Fitzpatrick, 26, capped a four-under 68 with his sixth birdie of the day at the par-five ninth for sole possession of second place on eight-under 136.

He also opened with birdies on the 10th and 11th and added birdies at No. 15 and the second to reach eight-under. He answered each of his two back-nine bogeys with birdies to finish a stroke ahead of American Chris Kirk and Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who were tied at seven-under.

That’s exactly where overnight leader Garcia started the day.

After a promising birdie at the second, Garcia was trending in the wrong direction with three bogeys, but thrust himself back in the mix with a sensational eagle at the par-five 11th, where he almost holed his 222-yard second shot before tapping in from four inches.

After another pair of bogeys — including a two-foot miss at the 15th, Garcia birdied the par-five 16th and the last for his share of third.

Kirk had been in the clubhouse for hours on seven-under by then, firing an eagle and seven birdies in his seven-under 65.

McIlroy, the defending champion thanks to his 2019 victory after the coronavirus halted last year’s edition, followed his seven-over first round with a three-over par 75 to miss the cut by a wide margin.

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