Lee Westwood: No major changes for Westy
World No 3 will stick to his tried and trusted routine despite the greater rewards at the US Open this week, he tells Kevin Garside
The first tee is a statement all its own, an enclosed chamber posted high above the course leading on to a fairway that falls away to the right behind a wall of trees. It should read "This is Olympic Club" in the manner of Anfield. Following the trace of the ball through the air is the first of many heart-thumping moments to wobble the participants, a test of nerve even on the first day of practice for the US Open.
Into this iconic setting walked Lee Westwood, calm as you like munching a chicken wrap fresh from the players' lounge. He might have been tending the barbecue at home, chatting casually among those assembled. "Where's Robert [Karlsson]? Is he not here yet? Probably too embarrassed after watching Sweden against Ukraine," intoned the Worksop wit in the manner of the northern club comedian.
Karlsson wasn't coming. In his stead jumped Scott Smith, a sprightly young American in his rookie year as a professional. He had his brother on the bag and a chum from his hometown, Reno, in the group. Westwood extended a hand to set the freshman at ease. "Good luck," he said, making the kid's day. Through the eyes of Smith, Westwood appeared a golfing deity, the world No 3 entering his world on the back of a 40th career victory.
Only marginally less awed was Matt Baldwin, an ISM stablemate of Westwood's negotiating his first year on the European Tour. Baldwin started well in Sweden and made another cut but admitted that he had been fighting his game. Baldwin is a fine golfer yet in every aspect of this shared first-tee ritual he was entering uncharted space alongside Westwood.
It is in brief snapshots like these that we come to understand just how powerful a force Westwood is. Try telling Baldwin and Smith that Westwood is a lesser being for the lack of a major championship. These two are finding out the hard way how tough it is just to make the weekend at events, let alone contend. They understood the privilege bestowed by the moment, a tutorial with a master of his trade at the US Open.
The last time Westwood walked this way in 1998 he tied seventh. It was his second US Open and came on the back of his fourth professional success. He recalls little of Olympic Club that week bar a memory of "iffy" greens. He was in the foothills of his first career ascent, a climb that would take him two years later to fourth in the world. He has known despair since, of course, but this rich phase of his career is approaching a new peak.
As they experimented with three-woods off the sixth, Baldwin asked Westwood if he could video the Worksop man's swing. "Sure, no problem." Baldwin wanted to record one of the most impressive bio-mechanical rhythms in golf and post it to his brother as a memento of his day.
In a quiet aside as we walked down the fairway, Baldwin articulated his respect, arguing that nobody he had seen up close had quite the control of a golf ball that Westwood displayed. "He was unbelievable in Sweden," Baldwin said. "It was a fantastic course but I couldn't see 19-under out there at all. Rory [McIlroy] is brilliant, but Lee's ball-striking is special."
Baldwin described the challenge presented by Olympic Club as "mental". This was a departure of a monumental scale for him, and his enthusiasm for it was obvious. For Westwood this was just another day at work, or at least, that is the message he wanted to convey.
"Everybody tries to do too much at these majors, more than they need to in terms of their preparation," Westwood said. "I just try to treat it like every other week. It's a tough course, the first six holes in particular. The fairways are tricky and narrow but I don't mind that. The tougher the test the better I seem to play, so I'm looking forward to it.
"My game is in good shape. I don't see this as any different to last week. Just like Sweden I have come here to win. I don't see the need to do anything different just because it is a major. I know people make a big deal about it being a major. And, of course, I would love to win one but I don't think it helps me to change too much in my routines. The key is to stay patient, keep everything on an even keel, do your work and hope you get that little bit of luck you need. To win around here you need a lot of patience and to hit it straight. I think I have enough experience to show the patience required and I tend to hit it pretty straight."
Indeed so. Westwood is grouped in the opening two rounds with world No 1 Luke Donald and No 2 Rory McIlroy, with whom he enjoyed a practice round yesterday. The British trio head the second half of the draw going out in the afternoon tomorrow – with Tiger Woods, Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson in the Hollywood slot in the morning. It is the way of things in the TV age, a feature which Westwood takes in his stride. "I get on very well with Rory and Luke and enjoy playing with them so that should be an advantage," he said.
Westwood's name is always high on the list of candidates expected to triumph at the US Open, a tournament that traditionally rewards technique and strategy above power and length. Olympic Club adds its own quirky dimension with its cambered fairways and small greens, but offers nothing to scare Westwood. "The big change is the greens. In 1998 they were very iffy. Now they are pure. If it stays like this the lads will be rolling them in from everywhere."
Westwood won by five shots in Sweden with a new set of clubs in the bag, including a new putter. If he gets the ball rolling around here, the putter will no longer be the stick with which to beat him, nor will Worksop be a major-free zone.
14-year-old replaces Casey at Olympic
The 14-year-old Andy Zhang will become the youngest player at the US Open since the Second World War tomorrow when he tees up in place of Paul Casey, who has withdrawn through injury.
The Florida-based prodigy Zhang just missed out on qualifying in a play-off. Born in China, he has lived in the States since he was 10, having taken up golf at six. His mother is with him in San Francisco, but his father returned to China thinking his son would remain a reserve for the second major of the season.
Zhang is not the youngest player in major history. Young Tom Morris played in the Open at 14 years and four months in 1865.
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