Molinari maintains 1-shot lead in Shanghai

Francesco Molinari

Francesco Molinari

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SHANGHAI – Lee Westwood figured a 5-wood would be enough to carry the water on the par-5 18th and set up an easy birdie for a share of the lead Friday at the HSBC Champions.

Only when he got to the green did he realize the hole was closer to the edge of a slope than usual, and that his position some 15 yards left of the pin made it nearly impossible to keep it on the green. He had to settle for par, leaving him one shot behind Francesco Molinari.

“That’s why you shouldn’t play golf by memory,” he said after a 2-under 70.

That was only one shot on one hole.

As for the rest of the game, Westwood has total recall. It does not look as though the Englishman is playing in only his second tournament since the first week of August. He was on a roll this year, and the only difference now is the No. 1 ranking next to his name.

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Lee Westwood

In his first tournament since replacing Tiger Woods atop the world ranking, Westwood didn’t know what to expect from his game in the final World Golf Championship of the year.

“Everything is pretty competitive in my game,” Westwood said. “It’s a good performance the first two rounds to come back. I’m pleasantly surprised with how well I’ve played.”

Equally happy was Molinari, whose game is built more on precision than power. Sheshan International measures 7,266 yards, which is a little on the long side for the Italian. But he opened up a four-shot lead with three early birdies, then held it together the rest of the round for a 70 and heads into the weekend at 9-under 135.

“To be better for my characteristics, the course will be probably a bit shorter and with thicker rough,” Molinari said. “So in theory, it should be the best course for me. But as I said, it’s a golf course that you can play many different ways.”

Ernie Els played it like he had nothing to lose, firing at flags on a day when a slightly stronger breeze made scoring slightly harder. Not for the Big Easy, who made eight birdies in a round of 65 and was only two shots behind, along with Richie Ramsay of Scotland and Jaco Van Zyl of South Africa, who had a 29 on his back nine.

Tiger Woods was still in the mix, just not as close to the lead as he would like. Woods hit into the water on the par-5 second, recovered with a pair of birdies, then dropped three shots in a four-hole stretch around the turn. All the putts inside 10 feet that he made in the opening round stayed out on Friday.

Frustration set in late in the round, especially with his final tee shot that he hooked into the rough. Woods let the driver fall from his hands, then he kicked the club about five yards in front of the tee box.

He shot 72, and was five shots out of the lead in the only World Golf Championship he has not won.

“Struggled a little bit,” he said later. “Didn’t hit it very good and had a couple of three-putts there, and had five lip-outs. So my score could have been worse, but it also could have been a lot better.”

Defending champion Phil Mickelson, who played with Westwood, shot a 71 and joined Woods at 4-under 140. PGA champion Martin Kaymer had a 69 and was another shot behind.

The top four players in the world were all in the top 20 heading into the weekend, adding to the anticipation of the first skirmish for the No. 1 ranking. Any of them can get there by winning.

With all the attention on the “Big Four” in Shanghai, Molinari keeps plodding along.

“I think it’s really exciting for everyone watching that one of the four guys could be No. 1 in the world at the end of the week,” Molinari said. “But for us, it doesn’t really make a difference. We play together with them, against them, pretty much week in and week out. So I think everyone is really just focusing on improving his ranking rather than seeing who is going to be on top.”

Luke Donald, who keeps steadily moving up the rankings despite only one victory in Europe this year, shot 70 and was at 6-under 138. Woods and Mickelson had plenty of company at 140, including Padraig Harrington, Ian Poulter, newlywed Nick Watney and Robert Allenby.

The strongest move came from Els, who got a small measure of redemption on the final hole.

A year ago, Els had a chance to shoot 61 in the final round and win the tournament. He had a downhill lie in the 18th fairway and tried to cut a 5-wood into the green, only to catch it fat and watch it go into the water. He made bogey and finished one shot behind.

With an identical shot this year, Els went with a 4-iron. It barely cleared the water, ran through the back of the green and he hit a delicate putt down the slope to 3 feet for a birdie.

“Just after I hit that shot last year, I said, ‘I should have gone with a 4-iron instead of trying to cut a 5-wood.’ That was probably the shot I should have played last year,” Els said. “I would have shot 61 and I would have won the tournament. Yeah, I did think about it.”

Els also made another putter switch, using the one he tried for two rounds last week in Malaysia. He said it helped playing with Woods because of how the former No. 1 looks so comfortable over putts.

Maybe so, but Woods didn’t look terribly comfortable after so many putts failed to drop.

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