Golf: Westwood drives to brink of joining tour

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The Independent Online
THE Open champion Justin Leonard collected his first victory since Royal Troon with a commanding final-round performance in the US Players' Championship, but Lee Westwood was every bit as impressive. Westwood is now within sight of

an invitation to join the US PGA Tour thanks to closing 69 tied for fifth place, four behind Leonard.

Westwood won $146,000 (pounds 91,000) and added to the $37,500 he earned when finishing 13th at the Bay Hill Invitational. He is close to the $200,000 he needs to be offered unlimited invitations on the US tour this year. His manager, Andrew Chandler, indicated the 24-year-old from Worksop would take US tour membership, although he would not be deserting Europe.

Westwood went to the turn in two-under 34 and almost holed his tee shot at the short 13th. A three-putt bogey at the next was quickly forgotten as he birdied the par-five 16th. His effort at the short 17th only just stayed out and he then got up and down at the last, holing from five feet, for a vital par.

"That was a nerve-wracking putt," Westwood said. "I'm delighted with my performance. I've proved this week that I am good enough to compete with one of the best fields of the year even though I gave everyone a head start on the first day."

Westwood, who has yet to drop below 29th in seven US tournaments, opened with a 74, but improved by three shots in each of the next two days. As well as this week's Freeport McDermott Classic in New Orleans and the Masters, Westwood has decided to stay on in America for the following week's MCI Classic at Hilton Head. His next appearance in Europe will not be until the Benson and Hedges International in May.

The overnight leader, Lee Janzen, the winner here in 1995, lost his three- stroke advantage as he crashed to a 79. First, Glen Day and then Len Mattiace, 50th and 75th respectively on the US money list, took over at the top of the leaderboard, but Leonard took control as he birdied four of the first five holes after the turn.

The 25-year-old from Dallas, with only one previous top-10 finish this year, had already eagled the second as he again mounted a superb comeback for victory. Leonard, who scored a 67, started the final round five off the pace, just as he had done at his previous two wins, the Kemper Open last June and at the Open.

Mattiace was Leonard's closest pursuer until he twice found water at the dangerous 17th to record a quintuple-bogey eight. Tom Lehman, Leonard's predecessor as Open champion, scored a 68 to finish second, two strokes behind, tied with Day.

Tiger Woods will go into the defence of his US Masters title on the back of his worst result of the season. A level-par round of 72 left Woods at two over par in 35th place. In eight rounds at Sawgrass's Stadium Course, Woods has yet to do better than a 71.

Woods started in fine form by birdieing the first two holes in an outward 33, but came back in three-over 39. "I'm not that far off," he said. The suspicion remains that Woods was not too upset about a low-key week. "I'd love to have this tournament on my resume, that would be awesome. But if I don't, that's fine as long as I get some green jackets."

Nick Faldo finished with a 73 but was encouraged by his form going into Augusta. Faldo holed a wedge shot from 117 yards for an eagle at the ninth and said: "I have done a lot of good work this week and I just need to keep things running until we get to Augusta."