PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Lee Westwood tries to peak for the biggest tournaments. And though he doesn't put the Players Championship in his top five, it's big enough that he is playing some of his best golf.
Westwood ran off three straight birdies to start his back nine Friday on his way to 7-under 65 to build a one-shot lead over Ryuji Imada of Tampa, Heath Slocum and Francesco Molinari.
"As you get older, it gets harder to peak all the time when you want to," said Westwood, 37. "You have to pick and choose your ones, and you want to play well in the biggest tournaments. And this is one of the biggest tournaments."
There's a chance it might finally start playing like one. Westwood was at 12-under 132, the lowest score to lead after 36 holes at the Players Championship since 1994, when Greg Norman was at 14 under on his way to setting the 72-hole record, 24 under.
But as the wind picked up and the temperature rose late in the afternoon, the signs were that TPC Sawgrass was starting to get firm after two days of soft conditions.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will be around for the weekend, which is about all that could be said for golf's biggest stars. Woods overcame one tee shot that flew off to the right at a 45-degree angle and gave him double bogey for 1-under 71. Mickelson flirted with the cut line late in the day until making a tough chip look easy for birdie on 16. He shot 71.
They were at 3-under 141, nine shots behind. That might be too far back on a course where 73 rounds in the 60s already have been shot, the most after two days on the Stadium Course since 1993.
Major champions Angel Cabrera, Stewart Cink and Vijay Singh, and defending champ Henrik Stenson were among 15 players poised to make the cut at 1-under 143 until John Merrick made a birdie putt on the final hole to knock them out. That tied the 1993 tournament record for the lowest cut at 142. Seventy-two players made the cut in 1993; 70 made it this year.
"Any time you give PGA Tour players no rough, soft greens, somebody is going to find a way to shoot low scores," said Imada, 33, the Japanese native who arrived in Tampa with his family at age 14 and starred at Chamberlain High.
Westwood might be No. 1 on the list of those who have never won a major. He has 30 career wins and hasn't finished worse than third in the past two majors, including a runnerup to Mickelson at the Masters last month.
He caused some consternation among PGA Tour brass last week when asked how an international player who is not a tour member regards the Players Championship. He put it behind the four majors and three World Golf Championships, suggesting it was No. 8 on his list.
But he has left no doubt how dearly he would love to win it. The hard part will be keeping his nose in front of a crowded leaderboard.
Molinari had 65 without a bogey in the morning. Imada needed just 23 putts, 11 on the back nine, for 66. "My putting feels great. I don't know the last time it felt this good," said Imada, who has one tour win, the AT&T Classic almost two years ago.
Woods, who missed the cut last weekend and has never missed consecutive cuts, wasn't secure for the weekend until a solid back nine. "Got to keep plodding along on this golf course," he said.
Taser: A Jacksonville man attending the second round was subdued by a Taser. Travis Parmelee, 36, was charged with disorderly intoxication and resisting arrest without violence. Police said course marshals notified officers that Parmelee was yelling at players and being belligerent near the 11th hole. Officers responded and attempted to calm him, but they said he became more combative and was Tasered once. Police said he had been drinking.
European: Fredrik Andersson Hed shot 6-under 66 in the second round of the Italian Open in Turin to build a one-shot lead at 8-under 136. Italian 17-year-old phenom Matteo Manassero, making his pro debut, shot a second straight 2-under 70.