SHANGHAI – In his first tournament at No. 1 in the world and having played only one event in three months, Lee Westwood was not sure what to expect out of his game at the HSBC Champions.
Being one shot behind Francesco Molinari going into the weekend was a pleasant surprise.
Molinari built a big lead early before stumbling to a couple of bogeys, then held on for a 2-under 70 that gave him a one-shot lead over Westwood after two rounds of this World Golf Championship.
Sheshan International is not particularly suited to the Italian's game because it's long and he's not. But he found his way around and finished 36 holes at 9-under 135.
Ernie Els got a small measure of redemption on the 18th hole and finished with a birdie for a 65, putting him among those two shots behind.
Tiger Woods remains in the mix, although not nearly as close as he would like. Woods struggled with his swing and on the greens, so frustrated at the end of his round that he kicked his driver after a poor shot on the 18th. He still managed a 72, and will go into the weekend five shots out of the lead.
"My score could have been worse," Woods said. "But it also could have been a lot better."
Defending champion Phil Mickelson had a 71 and was at 4-under 140, while PGA champion Martin Kaymer had a 69 and was another shot behind.
With all the attention on the "Big Four" in Shanghai — Westwood, Woods, Kaymer and Mickelson all have a chance to go to No. 1 this week — 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."
Westwood made sure he stayed plenty close.
He was rarely under much stress, except for one tee shot that bounded into the trees along the left side of the 11th fairway that led to his lone bogey. But he bounced back with birdies on the par-5 14th, and by hitting a driver onto and just over the 288-yard 16th for another simple birdie.
Westwood was poised to catch Molinari at the end, with a tee shot in the fairway on the par-5 18th and a decision to make. With the pin cut toward the front in a small collection area, caddie Billy Foster recommended that he lay up and have a full shot into the green. Westwood decided to go for the green with a 5-wood, and wound up left of the green and in an impossible spot.
His chip ran through the green, and he had to settle for par.
"That flag, when it's on the front, is normally not as close to the slope as it was today," Westwood said. "It's normally further across on the right-hand side, so you've got a little bit more room to play. That's why you shouldn't play golf by memory."
As for the rest of the game, there were few complaints.
"Everything is pretty competitive in my game," Westwood said. "It's a good performance the first two rounds to come back to. Like I said, I didn't know what to expect, and I'm pleasantly surprised with how well I've played."
Els was joined at 7-under 137 by Richie Ramsay of Scotland and Jaco Van Zyl of South Africa, who shot 29 on his back nine.
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 caught the lip.
He was tied for second place early in the round, just three shots behind Molinari, when he made three bogeys in a four-hole stretch around the turn, his frustration growing. After a bogey on the 15th, and after watching Els hit driver onto the 16th green, Woods still opted with an iron and hit that into a bunker.
The real frustration came on the 18th with a snap hook off the tee. He let the club fall from his hands, then booted it about five yards. Worse yet was missing a 6-foot birdie that would have put him that much closer to Molinari.