Golf: Westwood's global adventure

Paul Trow meets a young British professional living up to his rich promise
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The Independent Online
Costantino Rocca, lunching at the next table, looked up, grinned and cuffed the impudent young cub round the ear. Lee Westwood was reminiscing about the most impressive victory of his brief but profitable professional career, last November's Taiheiyo Masters in Japan. Suddenly his voice was louder as he reached the really juicy bit - when he took the title and a cheque for pounds 120,000 by beating Rocca at the fourth extra hole. The grizzled Italian duly rose to the bait.

It is easy to be beguiled by the fresh-faced 24-year-old's innocent expression and ready smile, but in reality Westwood is almost a veteran after just three and a half seasons on the PGA European Tour. He is well on the way to his first pounds 1m in prize money, has three victories under his belt and has acquired the knack of playing better the further he travels. This week, he is hoping for a US Open debut which is at least as successful as his first Masters appearance two months ago when he tied for 24th and thus qualified for a return visit next year.

Most professionals take time to mature - Rocca, for instance, did not secure his Tour card until he was 33. Tiger Woods is an obvious exception to that rule and so, perhaps, is Westwood. After a quiet apprenticeship, he clinched his maiden victory in the Volvo Scandinavian Masters last August with a 40-foot putt which lifted him instantly into a different league.

"I honestly didn't feel I had a chance of winning until the back nine on the last day," he said. "My second victory in Japan was a big boost to my confidence. That and coming sixth in the Dunlop Phoenix the following week when I played with Tom Watson and Jumbo Ozaki gave me a big finish for the year."

When Westwood turned professional, his horizons were unusually ambitious. "From the age of 15 I wanted to be a pro. The money was an incentive but I also wanted to travel to as many countries as possible." In his case, travel is not only broadening the mind but thickening the wallet. His third and latest victory came at the Malaysian Open in March. The owner of the course which hosted that event, Sau Jana in Kuala Lumpur, promptly signed him up as the club's tour pro. The Malaysian Tourist Board were also quick off the mark, and the busy young man from Worksop now represents them as well while jetting around the world.

With run-of-the-mill tournaments in the United States likely to carry purses in excess of $3m by 1999, thanks to a new, lucrative, Woods-inspired TV deal, Westwood may try to earn his US Tour card this autumn. "It's a thought, but I'm not definitely going for it. I'd never play there full- time, Europe will always be my main tour."

For this vote of support from their brightest rising star, the European Tour should be grateful. After finishing sixth on last year's order of merit, he is again in the top 10 this season and at present ninth in the Ryder Cup rankings. Like the Ulsterman Darren Clarke, with whom he hopes to team up at Valderrama in September, Westwood is a client of the International Sports Management Group which is run by a shrewd, down to earth former professional, Andrew "Chubby" Chandler.

His roots are also well established in his native Derbyshire and his 13-handicap father John still monitors his sometimes disobedient putting stroke. Under the tutelage of John King, the professional at Worksop, Westwood took only four years to earn a handicap of plus-one, but he is now coached by Peter Cowan at nearby Lindrick. "My first year on tour was pretty successful, but in 1995 I got stuck in a rut. A bit of it was mental and a bit technical, but visiting Peter last year was the turning point. He made me turn my hips quicker through the ball and I started hitting it further and straighter."

Promising young players have flattered before only to fade from view (remember Ronan Rafferty, Steve Richardson and Peter Baker?), and it is still too early to tell whether Westwood is the genuine article.

"Playing with good players every week makes a big difference. I learned a lot from playing with Bernhard Langer in the final round of the Benson & Hedges International [at The Oxfordshire last month]. He was very professional, never gave me a chance. I hit it a lot further than him, but he kept aiming for the middle of the greens and I couldn't shake him."

His own play has elicited similar reactions from many of the game's other leading lights. After being outdriven by Westwood, Ian Woosnam compared him with Woods while Watson admired his ability to "work the ball both ways which is very impressive". His talent has bred in Westwood a quiet confidence and, as Rocca would doubtless testify, a dash of cheek. Jack Nicklaus, of all people, found himself on the receiving end at the Masters. "I played with Jack in the last round at Augusta. He was struggling with his game, and at one stage he said, 'I'm sorry, I'm not playing well at the moment.' I said, 'Don't worry about it, you'll be all right.' It just came out. He looked at me for a moment and then grinned." If the Golden Bear was tempted to administer a Rocca-style cuff, he clearly thought better of it.