Poulter loves the big stage

Ian Poulter finished with a 4-1 record for Europe at the Ryder Cup.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Ian Poulter knows what to expect on the weekend at The Players Championship.

The pressure is sure to increase as Alex Cejka, who is in the lead and two shots ahead of him, and Masters champion Angel Cabrera, Tiger Woods and a host of others behind him try to walk the fine line between success and failure at the TPC Sawgrass.

There is trouble everywhere, even on the holes where there is no water.

The gallery, sparse by most counts on Friday, tends to flock to the course on the weekend and congregate around the carnival that is the island green for the par-3 17th. The volume goes up. The lights come on.

The Englishman loves this kind of atmosphere.

"I feel this is probably the fifth major," Poulter said. "It's a big tournament. There's great crowds, and it's set up very, very tough. I enjoy playing on the big stage."

He showed that at Royal Birkdale last summer, when he challenged Padraig Harrington on the back nine and holed what he thought was an important putt on the 18th hole, although it was proved meaningless when he finished four shots behind in the British Open.

And then there was the Ryder Cup.

Without a victory last year, and despite skipping the final qualifying tournament for Europe, his selection as a captain's pick was questioned every day leading up to the matches until he went 4-1 at Valhalla in a losing cause.

"I don't think I could probably play under as much pressure, to be honest with you," he said. "Everything from now on in ... hopefully, I can enjoy to play golf."

For the moment, golf is a blast.

It certainly felt like that in the second round to Cejka, who ran off three straight birdies early in the round to take the outright lead, added three more through the 11th hole to open a big lead and settled for a 5-under 67 that gave him the lead.

Cejka was at 11-under 133.

It is not surprising for unheralded players to be atop the leaderboard at The Players Championship, which is unpredictable because of the tricky golf course and the deepest and strongest field in golf.

What made Cejka such an unlikely candidate is that he could not feel his right arm, his hands, even his fingers the last time he played two weeks ago. Those are important extremities in golf.

Cejka had neck surgery last year and everything was going well until he went numb. Turned out it was a pinched nerve. He had an epidural to alleviate the problem, and the feeling is just now starting to return.

"In New Orleans, where I didn't feel anything at all, I really played from tee-to-green phenomenal," he said. "I just had no feeling, and I couldn't make putts. The feeling is better, and I can see it on the greens. So we'll see what happens the next two days."

As for his challengers?

It's an eclectic group that features the likes of Masters champion Angel Cabrera (65) and David Toms (70) in the group at 7-under 137, both of them major champions, one from just a month ago at Augusta National.

Justin Leonard, looked upon as the third wheel in his group with Woods and Ernie Els, emerged with the best score to get in the group at 5-under 139. Another shot back was Woods, who always gets attention.

The scorecard showed a 69 and left him seven shots behind, within shouting distance in this tournament. Woods was six shots behind after 36 holes when he won at Sawgrass in 2001, his only victory around this place.

What the card doesn't show was a tee shot that hit a rake and hung up in the deep grass of a steep slope. Or the shot that struck a spectator on the ninth hole, leaving Woods a tough pitch from the mounds that he executed well.

Or the tee shot on No. 14 that nearly went to No. 12, followed by an 8-iron over an oak tree to 25 feet for birdie that sent him in the right direction. Or the par on the 16th hole, an easy par 5, where Woods was 45 yards from the flag after two shots and then tried his best to chip short of the green. That was the only way to avoid the water and save par.

"Just kind of plodded my way along today," he said. "Overall, I got myself back in the ballgame."

The cut was at even-par 144, with 83 players advancing to the weekend.

That includes defending champion Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson, who wasn't sure if he needed a birdie on the his last hole, the par-5 ninth, to make the cut. He reached the green, two-putted for birdie and made the cut on the number.

He spoke for the rest of field, perhaps even himself, after he signed his card for a 71.

"You never want to give up here, because too many things can happen on this golf course," Mickelson said.

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