Lee Westwood: New coach, fresh caddie - and hoping to bank an immediate Ryder Cup reward
Fifteen years after first stepping out into golf's most unforgiving theatre, Europe's veteran seeks a stirring encore. Kevin Garside meets Lee Westwood
"Buzzing" is how Lee Westwood expressed his mood in anticipation of the 39th Ryder Cup. The barnburner at Medinah will be Westwood's eighth successive appearance since his debut at Valderrama in 1997. A callow rookie, Westwood partnered Sir Nick Faldo in each of the foursomes and fourballs, surviving the over-exposure to his highness to return two wins and two losses, a ratio he has significantly improved since. Despite the emergence of Rory McIlroy as the world's leading golfer and the return to something like his best of Spanish talisman Sergio Garcia, European strategy revolves around Westwood's vast experience and barrel chest.
Of the many factors falling portentously into place, the reconstitution of Westwood in this part of the season is arguably the most important. Six weeks ago, he walked off the 18th at Kiawah Island in turmoil having missed the cut at the PGA Championship. The contrast with McIlroy, who would lay claim to his second major title two days later, could not have been more pronounced. Before the weekend was out, Westwood's long-time coach, Peter Cowen, was sacked and his temporary caddie dismissed.
"It was frustrating missing the cut at a major. I played well tee to green but putted poorly and did not get up and down enough. It came to a head there. I wasn't improving under Pete. I wasn't playing the basic shots well enough. I wasn't getting up and down. He turned me into a good bunker player. I was really good at difficult up-and-downs but for the simple ones he hadn't given me a technique. I was going round in circles. It was time for a change, a fresh pair of eyes and a new set of ideas. Pete took it well. He understood my frustration."
The new eyes belong to Tony Johnstone, a former European Tour jobber from Zimbabwe with a laser short game. In truth, given the right chemistry, any guru would have done. That is not to diminish the importance of Johnstone's contribution, only to measure how far short of the required standard Westwood had fallen around the greens. He could dot an "i" from 300 yards with a driver but, with a wedge, no flag was in danger of being crossed. Westwood has in the past been defensive and sensitive about his short-game issues, and it is unfair to lay the blame for the anomaly at the door of Cowen. Nevertheless, something had to change.
"Tony looked at set-up. I wasn't doing the basic things well. Subtle changes creep up on you over time. As a coach, when you have been doing something for a long time, like Pete had, you start at point X when the problem is point A. I've now got structure to my putting practice, structure to my chipping work. I'm getting up and down more, holing more putts, which takes pressure of your iron play and long game."
The results were remarkable, and immediate. Westwood tore into the FedEx play-offs at the Barclays Championship, posting a top-five finish. He followed that with 13th at the Deutsche Bank tournament and second at the BMW Championship, where he was eclipsed only by the supernova that is McIlroy in the form of his young life. Having entered the play-off series ranked 53rd, Westwood resumed at East Lake for this week's finale in eighth spot and among the favourites to land the $10m winner's jackpot."
The re-tooling of Westwood's short game augurs well not only for the Ryder Cup but the wider assault on the PGA tour. His incremental rise up September's leaderboards in fields that are major deep is a vindication of the decision to move the family to Florida in December. "I'm thrilled with the way my spell in America has gone. Though I have yet to move to America physically, mentally it feels like I have, spending six or seven weeks over there, being on the same time zone for that length of time for the first time in my career, perfect practice conditions, big tournaments one after the next, has been brilliant. Coming in and out is so much more difficult because you lose rhythm and have to readjust the whole time. I started to hole a few more putts, get a few more up-and-downs and felt good, definitely made a difference."
You can see where this conversation might take a fellow. The inference is that Westwood's talent might yet reap the ultimate dividend and return a major championship sooner rather than later as a result of his relocation. It is a view he is delighted to endorse. Westwood did not miss a beat playing alongside McIlroy in the final round at Crooked Stick. The day before, he outshone Tiger Woods by a distance.
"It was good to see my game stacking up against his [McIlroy's]. The difference between us was that he had won twice in the previous three weeks. He had a bit more confidence and holed a few more putts."
So what of Medinah and the chances of Europe's first victory on American soil since 2004?
"If you had asked me five weeks ago I would have said they were favourites. Not now," Westwood said. "They maybe have a marginal advantage because they are playing at home with the crowd behind them etc, but in terms of form and the strength of the teams, there is nothing in it. Medinah is a tight course. I don't remember it being massively long and, besides, we have massive hitters on our side; Rory, Nicolas [Colsaerts], Martin [Kaymer], Sergio. I'm not short. This team will not be intimidated. We are all on great form. Paul Lawrie is having a brilliant season, Sergio too. Rory is on fire, Peter Hanson won two weeks back at the KLM Open, Martin had a top-five in Italy last week."
Then there is Europe's lightning rod, Ian Poulter. "Poults? I would not want to play him if you gave him a set of left-handed clubs. Take it from me. I've played him at match play and he is awful to go up against. He is gritty, never gives you anything. He just grinds away, sticking in there, a nightmare opponent. On top of that he is playing his best golf for some time."
There were words of encouragement, too, about Luke Donald, whose season appears to have cooled in sympathy with the British summer. "Don't worry about Luke," Westwood said. "His game is not far off. The play-offs have been on bomber's courses. They have not suited him. That is not so much an issue in the Ryder Cup. Luke is just so good from 120 yards and with the putter. You know he is going to be the huge asset he always is in this competition."
Westwood felt Nick Watney and Hunter Mahan were unfortunate not to be in the American team and acknowledged that their absence is a fair barometer of the strength of the opposition. Padraig Harrington's omission says something, too, about the substance of Europe. With little to choose between the individuals, outcomes could rest on the role played by the captains. Davis Love III and Jose-Maria Olazabal share a deep respect for golf's traditions and a love of the Ryder Cup. If Olazabal does have an edge, it rests in his attachment to a European vision he did so much to shape under the tutelage of the late Seve Ballesteros.
The Seve factor, Westwood believes, could be decisive. "We've had a couple of chats. Nothing too onerous. Jose-Maria likes to save it for the week, getting down to team matters when the time is right. Putting the Seve association aside and taking him as his own man, Jose-Maria is a very honest, solid man. He has the passion for the Ryder Cup. Add to that the Seve association, all he learned from the great man, he could be the secret weapon. He has been vice-captain in a couple of teams. He has made a couple of inspirational speeches at Celtic Manor and Valhalla. He was quite emotional, trying to get the team going. He is a great speaker. And he is going to be a great captain."
His Ryder record
1997 Valderrama Partnered Nick Faldo in every session, winning two and losing two, starting with defeat in the fourballs to Fred Couples and Brad Faxon before bouncing back with fourball victory over Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara. Lost to Jeff Maggert in the singles.
Europe 14.5 USA 13.5
1999 Brookline Partnered Darren Clarke in every session with same result, beginning with foursome defeat to Hal Sutton and Maggert, and again beating Woods and David Duval in fourballs. Lost to Tom Lehman in the singles.
USA 14.5 Europe 13.5
2002 The Belfry Paired in every session with Sergio Garcia, winning all but the final fourball against Woods and Davis Love III. It remains his only Ryder Cup loss to Woods in seven meetings. Lost to Scott Verplank in singles.
Europe 15.5 USA 12.5
2004 Oakland Hills Westwood's personal haul of 4.5 points out of 5 was his best. Played fourballs with Garcia and foursomes with Clarke, the only blot coming with a fourball halved with Jay Haas and Chris DiMarco. Beat Kenny Perry for his first singles win.
Europe 18.5 USA 9.5
2006 K Club Top points-scorer again, winning both fourballs alongside Clarke and halving the foursomes with Colin Montgomerie. Returned four points across all five sessions after beating DiMarco in the singles.
Europe 18.5 USA 9.5
2008 Valhalla Failed to win a match and, under Faldo's captaincy, sat out a session for the first time in the Saturday foursomes. Europe's heaviest defeat since 1981.
USA 16.5 Europe 11.5
2010 Celtic Manor Weather-affected contest meant he played only three of the four paired sessions, dropping only half a point in the foursomes alongside rookie Martin Kaymer. Poor singles record continued with defeat to Steve Stricker.
Europe 14.5 USA 13.5
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