Golf: Westwood acquires look of a master

A British golfer has marched into Georgia for the first major of the season in superb form. Andy Farrell reports from Augusta
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A YEAR and a few days ago Lee Westwood had never stepped foot in America.

His first steps were on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National and by finishing in the top 24 he ensured a return visit this week. Victory in the Freeport McDermott Classic in New Orleans on Sunday meant he returned in style.

A stretched limousine was waiting by the clubhouse at English Turn to whisk Westwood and his fiancee, Laurae Coltart, Andrew's sister, to the airport and the special charter flight to Augusta. Yesterday his parents arrived to hear about his latest triumph in person.

"It was hard work," Westwood said of his three-stroke victory over Steve Flesch. "I may have looked like swan gliding over the water, but underneath my legs were paddling like mad."

The swan analogy may apply only to his golf but there is certainly a grace and beauty about that at the moment. His rounds of 69, 68, 67, 69, for a 15 under total, means his last four rounds have all been under 70.

"I am hitting the ball as well from tee to green as I ever have," he said. "It was nice to go out and do it again under pressure. I am taking my chances and not making any silly mistakes. But even when I was five ahead, I knew anything could still happen - and it did on the 14th."

That was the only nasty moment of his final round. His first putt from the fringe bobbled and hit the putter for a second time. He called the penalty on himself. "I felt it immediately and just felt embarrassed that everyone had seen it. I couldn't believe it." But again displaying the temperament that is every bit as impressive as the rest of his game, Westwood holed the 18-foot putt he had left for a bogey.

The next, the par-five 15th with an island, also revealed a lot about the 24 year old. His caddie was urging him to take a two-iron off the tee and lay up with his second. Westwood, saying that he had hardly missed a fairway all week, used his driver and split the fairway.

Now faced with a long carry across the water, Westwood was once again encouraged to lay up. "That's not what I'm about," he said. "I'm not going to hit sand wedge, sand wedge." He struck a five-iron on to the green and two-putted for his fifth birdie of the day.

The victory is the seventh of Westwood's career and came in only his eighth event in America, in none of which has he been lower than 29th. Only Seve Ballesteros, Tony Jacklin and Jose Maria Olazabal from Europe have won at a younger age in the States in recent decades. In the last three weeks, when he has also finished 13th at Bay Hill and fifth in the Players' Championship, Westwood has won $489,500 (pounds 300,000) to lie 11th on the US money list.

Should he wish to accept, Westwood is now exempt on the US PGA Tour until the end of 2000. "I will have to think about it," he said. "With the world tour events and this win, I can probably play where I want to and it won't matter so much whether I am a member of the US tour or the European tour."

As usual, the locker-room gossip has been ahead of the leaderboard. Westwood's talent has been well recognised by other players. "I think he has what it takes," Ernie Els said. "He loves the game and has a great attitude."

"His composure and attitude on the course is fabulous," Colin Montgomerie said. "That's probably his best asset, his mental ability to put things behind him and get on with it. He's very, very good."

"He hits the ball very easily," marvelled Costantino Rocca. "He hits his driver like he is hitting a wedge. That is important. And he hits the ball high - long and straight but high, too - and that is the perfect game for America."

Jose Maria Olazabal added: "He is very long, yes. He has a great touch around the greens for a man of his build, and he's a very good putter. But when I look at Lee Westwood, I think first of his composure. That impresses me most."

Take his debut at the Masters last year. Westwood started six, six - three over par. "I looked round the course to see if I could get three birdies back, but couldn't see them anywhere." But he battled back and his closing 70 included a back-nine 33 and birdies at two of the last three holes. "It was important to get into the top 24. If I hadn't done that, I might not have the chance to win this year. I might not have qualified in the other ways I did later. It gave me something to look forward to for the last 12 months."

If Augusta is to be dominated by the power games of Tiger Woods, Els and Davis Love, count Westwood in. Apart from anything else, Worksop's rock-hard summer greens has given Westwood a flair for putting on fast and undulating greens. Woods' victory last year has not necessarily ended the European run of success which spans 10 titles from Ballesteros in 1980 to Faldo in '96. But it was watching Jack Nicklaus win his sixth green jacket in '86 which sparked Westwood's interest in the game.

"That's the first time I can remember watching golf," he said. "I didn't see the last few holes because I had school the next day." He had already been given a set of clubs by his grandparents for Christmas but they did not get an airing until the following summer holidays. "My dad wanted to go fishing but I threw stones at the fish so we played golf instead. I've always been competitive. Whatever I did with my dad, arm-wrestling or kicking a football around, he never let me win and that was good for me."

Westwood was paired with Nicklaus on the final day last year and got his autograph on a poster from the 1986 tournament. Nicklaus had a poor start and said to Westwood: "Sorry, I'm holding you up, Lee. I'll try and keep up." He got the reply: "Don't worry about it. You'll be all right."

"I didn't mean it like that," Westwood said. "I was obviously happy to be out there playing with Jack Nicklaus. It would not have bothered me if it had taken 10 days to get round."

After all the forward steps he has taken, not least starring as a rookie in the Ryder Cup at Valderrama, winning a major does not look such a large jump. "The best players have always been rated on whether they have won a major. But there are only four a year and you can get unlucky like Monty. He deserves to have a major but what you deserve and what you get are two different things.

"I am playing hundreds of times better than this time last year. The ball is going further and I'm shaping it left to right and right to left as I want.There is a new brigade of young players, little Tiger, Ernie and Justin Leonard, and it's nice if people class me in that category. That's what I'm aiming for."

After Els' victory at Bay Hill, Westwood shared an hour and a couple of beers in the locker-room with the winner and the tournament host, Arnold Palmer. If you judge a man by the company he keeps, Westwood is the genuine article. If only he could keep a straight face when saying that he does know his jacket size.

The rise of Lee Westwood

In the past six months, after making his debut in Europe's winning Ryder Cup team at Valderrama (won 2, lost 3), Lee Westwood has won four tournaments and earned just over pounds 1,000,000.

Alfred Dunhill Cup

winnings pounds 8,500

Volvo Masters Win

pounds 166,000

Money list bonus 3rd

pounds 78,000

Sarazen World Open 2nd

pounds 144,000

Visa Taiheiyo Win

pounds 130,000

Dunlop Phoenix 21st

pounds 7,800

Australian Open Win

pounds 90,000

Johnnie Walker Classic 4th

pounds 31,470

Australian Masters 13th

pounds 6,040

Malayasian Open 2nd

pounds 19,640

Dubai Classic 6th

pounds 23,000

Qatar Masters 21st

pounds 6,636

Bay Hill Invitational 13th

pounds 23,006

US Players Championship 5th

pounds 89,570

Freeport McDermott Classic Win

pounds 187,730

Total winnings: .................pounds 1,011,392