In less time than it takes to beat Greg Norman in a sudden-death play- off, Lee Westwood has become a household name. In Malaysia. When the Malaysian Open champion returned recently to the country where he has a course attachment, he was welcomed by a group children aged between nine and 13 wearing Lee Westwood T-shirts, Lee Westwood caps and who had composed a song in his honour.
"Until they find a world class player of their own," explained Westwood's manager, Andrew Chandler, "they have adopted Lee as a champion to look up to." It helped, naturally, that Westwood had just won three times in five weeks. Yet, though it meant extending a round-the-trip away from home to 48 days, the 24-year-old from Worksop enthusiastically went about his sponsor's obligations. And what of the reaction? His answer befitted someone who is both unassuming, but self-confident. "That's all right," he said. "Hopefully, that will be worldwide."
In Australia, television executives prompted an invitation to the Australian Masters in February after Westwood's last-day battle with Norman in Melbourne. He may not yet be a national celebrity in Britain, but he is officially recognised as a good sport who is game for a laugh after his appearance on the segment of the BBC's Sports Review of the Year which is more like, well, Game for a Laugh. In trying to recreate Jeremy Guscott's famous drop-goal for the Lions in South Africa, Westwood's efforts were straight, not something all his fellow contestants managed, but the fact he failed to clear the bar revealed a childhood that was more football than rugby.
Until his father John, a schoolmaster, took him to play at Worksop Golf Club. It was there, a week before Christmas, that Westwood fulfilled his last engagements with the media for the year. With him were his parents and Chandler, a former player, universally known as Chubby, whose stable also includes the Open runner-up Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Andrew Coltart.
Westwood, who sustained himself during his lengthy trip with the thought of driving the new Mercedes with which he has replaced his Porsche, had every reason to celebrate over the festive season. Third on the European money list, he made the cut in all four major championships. Only 15 other players achieved that feat, and only two, Colin Montgomerie and Jesper Parnevik, were also European. (As a reference, Westwood twice tied and once beat the player he is most compared with, the Masters champion, Tiger Woods.)
Then came the Ryder Cup at Valderrama, where Westwood was one of a number of young European rookies to play well, winning two points in partnership with Nick Faldo. You got the impression the combination worked because it never occurred to Westwood to be in awe of the six-times major winner. Finally, there were those last five weeks which brought Westwood over pounds 500,000, but more importantly plenty of world ranking points (he moved from 64th to 23rd during 1997) and three additions to a list of victories which stands at six in the last 16 months.
After victory in the Volvo Masters at Montecastillo in Spain, Westwood finished second to Mark Calcavecchia in the Sarazen World Open in Atlanta, defended his Visa Taiheiyo title in Japan and after a 20th place in the Dunlop Phoenix, moved on to Melbourne where he beat Norman at the fourth extra hole to claim the Australian Open. "It has sunk in now, but it didn't at the time. You just go from one tournament to the next. It was a fantastic five weeks. I've looked at everybody and can't see anyone who has had a five-week spell like that.
"Once you win one, you think let's win another one and then it's, I've just won two, maybe I can win another one. The thought process changes."
Top of his list is the Australian Open, not only since it is the biggest title he has won but because of the realisation that it came with beating the Great White Shark in home waters: "That I could compete at the highest level. If you can do it against the world No 1, you can do it against anyone. The Ryder Cup and that has all contributed to it. To become a good player, you have to play with the best in the world. I played with the best players over those five weeks and was fortunate enough to beat most of them. I'm very happy with the way things are going."
Not the least of Westwood's attributes is his attitude to play-offs, in which he has a won-three, lost-none record. "It's not a problem when the worst you can do is second," he said. He sees no stigma in losing play-offs, as Norman has done more often than he has won them. "It's quite a nice achievement to have, to be honest, losing all four majors in play- offs."
"He doesn't see the need to be negative," Chandler confirms. "That's probably the difference between him and all the others." So when he had a succession of near-misses to Jose Maria Olazabal at the Canaries Open, Bernhard Langer in the Benson and Hedges International, and twice to Colin Montgomerie in the European Grand Prix and the Irish Open, Westwood just thought: "They can't keep doing this. If I could keep my confidence then, you're going to win one sooner or later."
"I never actually gave any of those tournaments away," he said. "Every time they were taken off me, like Langer shooting the best round of the day at the B&H." Then there were the two with Montgomerie. "Which two with Monty?" Westwood replies, ever so slightly mischievously. "You mean, when he shot 62 on the last day of the Irish Open and 65 on the last day at Slaley? Both course records. I don't think they went too badly. At Slaley, I finished third and in the Irish Open I beat Nick Faldo by two to finish second, took pounds 80,000 home, moved up the world rankings and secured my place in the Ryder Cup team. It didn't go that badly, did it?"
Still, others might have suffered from the experience. "Having a three- shot lead and losing by seven? It's how you approach it. I didn't take anything negative out of a performance like that. If I had shot an 84 on the last day, then I would have thought: `What a choker'. But I shot 72 around a difficult golf course, in contention. I didn't play great, but I held it together while someone was shooting nine under next to me. I would have needed to shoot a 65 just to tie, and that's what I scored to set the course record in the first place on the first day. Then, defending champion and all, he shoots a 62 to win. He said in all the papers that the 65 in the first round of the US Open was the best round of his life, but I'd have to say that the 62 in the last round of the Irish was the best round of his life."
Montgomerie's tendency to raise his game when playing alongside Westwood is as eloquent an endorsement as the Scot could provide verbally. Westwood will play around a dozen times in America next year but will not move there full-time. "I've got lots more goals to accomplish in Europe," he said. Like breaking the five-year run at the top of the money list of Montgomerie, who also decided to stay mainly in Europe. "It's a bit of a shame, really," Westwood jokes. "It would have been nice to get rid of him."
If Westwood's laid-back approach suggests he is not taking in what is happening around him, then think again. "I learnt little things from a lot of people, not necessarily things that other people will think are big things, but they have certainly helped me over the last five weeks. I got into a situation that they were in and thought so-and-so did this here, or that there. I learnt a lot from Bernhard Langer in the last round of the Benson and Hedges, more than anybody. It was interesting to see how he plotted his way around the golf course. When the flags were tucked away, he would go away from the trouble, to the middle of the greens where he knew he could two-putt from. He was very impressive in that last round.
"I enjoyed playing with Faldo at the Ryder Cup. It was impressive to see how professional he was and how unprofessional I was. To say I was like 31st in the world, and he was a former world No 1, it was interesting to see the difference between our approaches. I'm not saying I was unprofessional, but it was interesting to see how he and Bernhard Langer used practice rounds, for example.
"I played with Langer and up the first, he walked into the right hand rough and had a look at how it was, then walked over to the left hand rough, while I've walked up the middle, knocked it on the green and holed it for a three and was thinking I was having a great practice round. But he has actually used it as a practice round, preparing for the match. But then he was playing in his eighth Ryder Cup, while I was like, `there are 30,000 people here all cheering for us'. But I set out at the beginning of the week to learn a few things from the Ryder Cup and I did."
Ultimately, however, it was a putting tip from his coach, Peter Cowen, prior to the Volvo Masters which sparked his winning run. He won't reveal what the tip was, but the important point is how he describes it changing his putting from being "very, very average to reasonable". That suggests there is room for improvement. "You can always improve. Everyone is striving for perfection. Don't think anyone will get there, but I'd like to get fairly close to it. The only way you can do that is by working at it and learning all the time.
"If you take Tiger Woods' driving, long and straight, Tom Watson's iron play, Langer's head, Justin Leonard's putting, Greg Norman's short game. No one has got everything, and they have not got what they have without working on those things really hard."
Work on his chipping and putting, and fitness, will be the priority when he returns to business after the Christmas break. First, there was a burning question. "When do we finally get to see Lee?" asked Westwood's mother, Trish. "After our Christmas party tomorrow," said Chandler, "then he's all yours."