Ian Poulter's TPC Sawgrass masterclass puts Tiger Woods into context

Golf Tee

Golf is a game of confidence.

Ian Poulter has plenty and Tiger Woods has none, a story written in the bold ink of a Players Championship leaderboard on Thursday showing the Englishman at the head of the pack and the American 100th, nowhere in other words.

On a day when the course was not easy, Poulter make it look like a municipal pitch-and-putt, signing for a seven-under 65 that tied him for the lead alongside the US-based Scot Martin Laird. The world No1 and pre-tournament favourite Rory McIlroy was seven shots adrift of the leaders after a level round of 72.

Poulter had just 10 putts in a back nine of 31 which included five birdies. "That would be one of the top-10 rounds of golf I have ever played," he said afterwards. "It is silly to say you would be disappointed after a round of 65, but it could have been even better. I had a lot of chances on the front nine and it would have been nice to take a few of them."

Maybe so, but Poulter took more than his share. The Englishman's game is built around his putting – he has long been one of the best in the world – but on his day he can be a fine ball-striker too. This was one of those days. He found 11 of 14 fairways off the tee, and 14 of 18 greens in regulations. At the par-four 4th he hit his approach shot to less than an inch. There is just something about this course that he loves. "There are a lot of tricky holes out there, a lot of tricky shots. But that helps me focus my mind, which is always good," he said. You don't say, Mr Poulter.

There is also the not insignificant matter of the Englishman's new house in Lake Nona, Florida, a veritable Taj Mahal by all accounts, which had been under construction for a number years. Last week, the Poulter family moved in en masse and the man of the house spent the week unpacking boxes. "At last I can play without the hassle and stress [that comes with every construction project]," he said.

As for the prospects of winning come Sunday afternoon, he was unabashed. The winner's cheque is US$1.7m (£1.05m), and his shopping list is already complete. "A new car," he said when asked how he would dispose of such a windfall. "A Ferrari Enzo."

No one will ever accuse the Englishman of failing to enjoy his life. Which is more than might be said of Mr Woods.

It was not so long ago Poulter was being mocked for placing himself on the same pedestal as Woods. These days he is probably as good as the former world No1, if not better. Then again, there are more than a few players in the field who could say the same.

When it comes to the technicalities of the swing Woods has long been a mystery wrapped in an enigma, though perhaps that is no longer the case.

Perhaps he really is as bad as he looks.

Woods suggested the other day he needed to hit a "million" more range balls in order to bed in the swing changes he has been working on. A million balls? That would take him around 10 years, working 50 weeks a year. Presumably he was exaggerating for the sake of effect, although on the evidence of his first round, maybe he was not.

At this exalted level, it is the inconsistency that gets you ever time. Suffice to say Woods was the very model of inconsistency, mixing the good with the bad, and the mediocre and the simply awful. He started misfiring early, hitting his opening tee shot on the 10th left of its intended target, then leaving his approach in a greenside bunker and then, finally, missing a par putt from less than seven feet. The tone was set and it was mostly discordant from then on.

Every once in a while he would mine something good from his tortured pre-shot routine — he birdied the notorious 17th, for instance — but it was not long before made the simple look hard, and the difficult look impossible as he ran up five bogeys in his round of 74. "It was frustrating that my good shots ended up in bad spots, and my bad shots ended up in worse spots," he said afterwards, the suggestion being that he was the victim of bad luck.

Believe that if you will. But believe this more — if Woods does get his act together he could miss the cut on the US PGA Tour for the second successive week. Another career first in his downward spiral.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Lawrence Donegan at TPC Sawgrass, for The Guardian on Thursday 10th May 2012 20.37 Europe/London

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