Fit and 40 in Florida: Could this prove the making of Lee Westwood?
Former world No 1 hopes winter training in the sun can help him end his wait for a major victory
You can take the man out of Worksop. Six weeks as a Florida resident has done little to diminish Lee Westwood's attachment to the dry banter of the northern shires. Westwood is a late entrant to the golfing year, choosing the Dubai Desert Classic, which kicks off tomorrow, as the place to start a pivotal season. "It's two and a half hours to New York then 12 and a half from New York to Dubai. Just thought I'd start the year off with a gentle one."
Westwood turns 40 in April, a fortnight after the Masters Tournament. His relocation to the United States, where he has taken up membership of the PGA Tour, is a final shot at crossing the line in a major. The dearth of first-time major winners aged 40-plus is a topic of conversation politely avoided in his company.
Westwood will tell you that he has never been fitter. Another winter spent pumping iron is behind him. Noteworthy though his conditioning is, strength and athleticism are only part of the story, and arguably contribute little to the area of greatest need. If Westwood could chip and putt as well as he negotiates the space between tee and green he might still be world No 1.
As he was fond of pointing out, a golfer cannot reach that station without performing those functions well. Nevertheless something short-circuits the process the bigger the event. By familiarising himself with the rhythms and routines of PGA Tour life, by immersing himself in the Florida golfing belt, Westwood hopes new patterns might be laid over old, and when opportunity knocks at the big show, as it frequently has, he might be better placed to harness the gifts nature bestowed.
"I try hard every year to win a major, so I just need to find a little spark that takes me from finishing second or third to winning one. I played a lot more this winter than I would normally play," Westwood said. "There's no rust. The main reason for moving to Florida was to get more games of golf because I wouldn't play normally when I'm at home because of the weather. Last week I had shorts on and was out playing with Luke Donald.
"Living in England I've always finished the year, gone home, packed the clubs away and come back out trying to catch everyone else. My short game is sharper from being out there, especially my putting. I feel like I'm coming out running. Hopefully, I will come out and be competitive. We've seen recently some of the best players struggling to find their competitive edge. I feel like I'm playing well and I have a chance."
Westwood is down to eighth in the world. He has in the past six months dispensed with his coach, Pete Cowen, hired and fired another, Tony Johnston, and parted company with his long-time caddie Billy Foster. More than anything he needs to settle.
The field in Dubai this year is not what it has been. Though by taking a victory at a tournament he has yet to win Westwood would hardly be proving a point. He has more than 40 victories across the world, including two last year at the Nordea Masters and Indonesian Masters. That said, a quick start would at least allow him some purchase in a narrative dominated by Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods.
The latter's four-shot victory at Torrey Pines on Monday has the game in a lather. Woods could afford to drop four shots coming in yet still win by as many strokes. Westwood's battle to win one major tournament contrasts sharply with Woods's assault on the 18-major record of Jack Nicklaus, a theme which gathers pace with each domestic triumph. Woods is currently on 14. Westwood is therefore looking to build quick momentum to take back to America with him.
"I should have won when I was up against Miguel [Angel Jimenez] in a play-off in 2010, and then last year I had to birdie the last to force a play-off with Rafa [Cabrera-Bello] and missed it, so I feel like I've let a couple slip," he said. "It's certainly one I would like to win. I've been back here every year apart from one since 1994 and I have a good record. So hopefully this week I'll play as well as I've played the last few years and have a chance again and hopefully finish it off. I feel like I've got a chance come Sunday."
Westwood is grouped with Chris Wood, who took his maiden tour victory in Qatar last week. Wood has his own Masters agenda to pursue and needs to breach the world's top 50 if he is to secure a second trip to Augusta in April. The win in Qatar saw him most of the way there, propelling him from 142 to 60.
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