Golf: Westwood entranced by America

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The Independent Online
IT WAS Phil Mickelson at the Ryder Cup who pointed out that it was probably Nick Faldo who chose to partner Lee Westwood and not the other way round."The great thing was that he did what he was told," Faldo said.

"If I said `hit a three-wood down the fairway' he would do it, if I said `put it on the green' he would do it and if I said `knock in the putt' he would do that too." Faldo added: "He's doing all right."

Westwood, only 24, keeps taking strides only marginally smaller than those of a tiger. The latest was his fifth place finish in the US Players' Championship here at Sawgrass on Sunday.

It was his debut at the TPC and three of the four players who finished above him were Open champions in Justin Leonard, Tom Lehman and Mark Calcavecchia. A final-round 69 left Westwood four behind Leonard, the most recent winner at Royal Troon.

Faldo could be seeing a lot more of Westwood in America. After only two events this year Westwood has won $183,500 (pounds 113,270) and is only $16,500 (pounds 10,000) away from earning the right to join the US Tour and gain unlimited invitations for the year.

Safe in the knowledge he will qualify for a card next year, Westwood may not join the US Tour for this season and stick to his planned 13 or 14 events. That would prevent a potentially embarrassingly clash for, at his present rate, he may qualify for the elite 30-man, $4m Tour Championship, which is scheduled opposite the Volvo Masters, where he is the defending champion.

But Westwood has already admitted his goal has changed from trying to be No 1 on the European money list to taking the chance to improve by playing more in America. He has added the MCI Classic at Hilton Head to a run that continues in New Orleans this week and then the Masters. His next appearance in Europe will be the Benson and Hedges International in May.

This was Westwood's seventh event in the States and he has yet to finish below 29th place. "I like it here. I enjoy quick greens and the challenge of big curling putts," he said. "The greens at Worksop were always hard and fast in the summer."

Importantly, Westwood seems to be able to learn as he goes along. "You have got to be a quick learner out here. They don't give you a second chance," he said. "I got frustrated with my putting at Bay Hill, but here my temperament has been good. I stuck in even when I was four over after eight holes of the second round."

Leonard also had to battle over the first couple of rounds. As at the Open, and the Kemper Open, his last win before Troon, the former US Amateur champion started the final day five off the lead.

But when he putts as he did in Ayrshire last July such deficits are quickly overcome and from the 10th to the 15th he single-putted every green. Four were for birdies and a closing 67 gave Leonard a two-stroke victory over Lehman and Glen Day.

As an Open winner, Leonard is in a position to comment on the stature of the 25-year-old Players' Championship. "There are reasons the majors are rated how they are; their history, the venues and the importance players place on them," he said.

"This is not a major championship but it is definitely in a class just below. The importance the players put on this title means this is a special win for me."

Leonard's only problem now is the fact that no Players champion has gone on to win the Masters in the same year.