Florida-bound Westwood aiming for title hat-trick


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The Independent Online

Lee Westwood begins the defence of the Nedbank Challenge Trophy in South Africa today before heading to Bangkok next week, where he lowered the course record a year ago en route to victory in the Thailand Golf Championship. Far from it representing the close of play at the end of another busy year for Westwood, his season-ending sequence that began in Dubai last week is in fact a departure.

When he said farewell to Worksop he was effectively saying hello to life as an Englishman abroad. From Bangkok Westwood flies straight to Florida to take up residence at Old Palm with his wife and children. It is, he recognises, a move he should have made some years ago. At 39 he is playing catch-up in a career that, despite the hoard of global trophies banked, 45 and counting, has yet to yield the one that matters, a major championship.

It has not been a vintage 12 months for Westwood. Only two victories, at low-key events, have seen his world ranking drop from two at the start of the season to six. For differing reasons he has dispensed with his long-time coach, Pete Cowen, and his regular caddie, Billy Foster. He did not have the best of it at the European tour finale in Dubai, fading after a promising start. Some critics believe they have detected the first signs of career decline, contrasting his modest returns with the blue-chip catalogue presently being assembled by Rory McIlroy.

Westwood does not need telling. Indeed he is tired of the conversation. Naysayers point to recurring difficulties on the greens. They will get no argument from him. It is not that Westwood cannot putt, only that the putts tend to drop at events that matter least. Westwood shot a 60 and 64 in the opening rounds in Bangkok last year. Playing-partner Charl Schwartzel, who earlier that year won his first major at the Masters, was staggered at the golf produced. "I could see a 63 or maybe a 62, but no way could I see a 60 out there," Schwartzel said in eulogy to Westwood's brilliance that day.

Westwood might blow the field away to win the Nedbank for a third consecutive year, and do the same at the Amata Spring next week, but it will not be enough to convince doubters that he is any nearer delivering on the biggest stage. In his final two weeks in Worksop Westwood barely touched a club, limiting preparation to the gym. At an end-of-season shindig at the Atlantis Hotel he drank only soft drinks. He will not resurface until Dubai next year in the first week of February, from where all roads lead to Augusta.

Westwood turns 40 a fortnight after the Masters. He hopes that by committing to the PGA Tour his game will be better assimilated to conditions in the United States, where three of the four major tournaments are held. Given that the putts drop elsewhere in the world, there is no earthly reason why they should not find the centre of American cups. The explanation arguably rests between his ears.

For now the immediate aim is to take down a smart, if small, 12-man field in South Africa, including in-form Justin Rose and major winners Louis Oosthuizen and Schwartzel. "I'd love to be the first to win three Nedbank titles in a row," Westwood said. "You just have to look at the names on the trophy to realise how special it is. Coming back and defending a title is very satisfying. That's the plan this week and next."