James Lawton at The Open 2013: Champion’s nerve still proves out of reach for Lee Westwood

There was the grim possibility that his last and best chance had come and gone

Muirfield

He had walked these steps before, too many times to recount comfortably no doubt, and nor did it help Lee Westwood that for the second time in three years it was the hit-and-miss American plunderer Phil Mickelson who stood in the place of triumph.

It was the one which he had begun to believe was at last reserved for him  before Mickelson, the grinning and sometimes swaggering idol of country-club America, laid his hand on his fifth major title, this one the great old prize of Westwood’s homeland to add to three Masters and one PGA title.

Westwood, who has fought so hard over recent years not to end his days in the major tournament wilderness,  insisted on the eve of the climax to the 142nd Open that if he should meet again with disappointment it would not be the end of the world.

The sun would still rise over his new luxurious home in Florida, where the multi-millionaires of golf congregate so eagerly. The flamingos would be no less ornamental as they took their evening stroll along the shoreline. His status as one of the world’s most  successful golfers, a serial winner at every level below the one which tends to define the greatest players, would hardly be questioned.

Yet if there was a loud cry of support for the 40-year-old from Nottinghamshire when he forlornly tapped in his final putt – a par in the last round 75 which saw him slide to a three-way tie for third place with Ryder Cup team-mate Ian Poulter and Australia’s Masters champion Adam Scott – there was also the grim possibility that his last chance, and certainly his best, to win a major title might just have come and gone.

After six holes of his last round he was three shots ahead. The threat of the Tiger had not materialised, that of Sweden’s Henrik Stenson was beginning to ebb, and Mickelson’s flashing grin had still to emerge from the middle of the pack.

Westwood’s game from the tee lacked the authority of Saturday, when he took a two-shot lead, and on several occasions he was required to make  saving putts of great resilience to stay in front, but there had never been a stronger sense that he might just deliver a winning performance in a major tournament. It made the  denouement all the more poignant as Mickelson finished a round of 66 filled with both boldness and an almost nonchalant killing touch with a superb one-two of eagle and birdie.

Mickelson, the 43-year-old who also had to experience a desperate time of doubt when it looked as if he too would be denied a major as he lived under the permanent shadow of the young and apparently indestructible Tiger, was the man who so ferociously broke Westwood’s ambition in Augusta three years ago. Then he conjured a stunning shot from out of a stand of pine trees which swept him to his third Green Jacket. Yesterday he simply played golf of ultimate freedom and confidence. Beside it, Westwood’s resistance could never rise above the routine. One damning verdict came from the doyen of American golf writers, Dan Jenkins, who tweeted to the game’s cognoscenti, “Lee Westwood is still a pretty good golfer who never won a major.”

If that sounded harsh, it was no more than the reality that so often descends on players of outstanding skill who cannot muster the nerve and the confidence to deliver the great victories that might carry them to another level of the game. Westwood was philosophical enough as the feteing of Mickelson proceeded in the chill dusk that  followed days of burning heat and disabling tension.

“I said before the last round that sometimes you play well and somebody plays a bit better and sometimes you play poorly,” he said. “I didn’t  really do either today and Phil obviously played well. But you’ve got to play well to give yourself your own  momentum and I just couldn’t get there today. I felt pretty comfortable. I felt good on the greens and I rolled a lot of putts. I was unlucky a couple of times, running it close. But some days it just doesn’t happen.”

There were moments, certainly, when Westwood displayed the resilience of a fighter who, having taken a heavy blow, had the will and the craft to get back into what might still prove to be the most important contest of his career.

The most dramatic example came on the par-three seventh hole when a poor tee shot left him facing the possibility of a double bogey. That would have engulfed the lead he held over the hard-driving Stenson and perhaps  delivered an early, killing blow to his chances. Instead, Westwood produced a 12-foot putt which both preserved his advantage and suggested there was still much fight left in the man from Worksop.

Unfortunately, in the end there wasn’t nearly enough composure. The last of it disappeared when he was obliged to pursue his final chance to stay alive – a major impact on the par-five 17th hole. An eagle there, to match the one unfurled so effortlessly by Mickelson a little earlier, might just have created a late if improbable surge for survival. The long shot disappeared in the high grass of the rough – and the newly augmented list of those moments which, when the pressure has been at its most intense, have turned irrevocably against Lee Westwood.

Before Sunday’s trial he was asked how confident he was of reproducing for the nation the kind of exhilaration achieved by Andy Murray when he beat Novak Djokovic on Wimbledon’s Centre Court earlier this month.

Westwood considered the question for some time before saying that, yes, he would indeed like to meet the expectations of the country. But there was also something else to understand about how it is when he goes out to collide with a Tiger Woods or, say, a Phil Mickelson.

“Hopefully,” he said, “I can give the country that kind of moment but you know the pressure comes not from the people but the expectation I put on myself.

“I don’t really live my life from the outside in. I don’t live it and run it  according to what other people think. I live it the other way around. So I have my own ideas and my dreams and my own plans.”

On Sunday Lee Westwood brought a formidable collection of such beliefs and yearnings to the task of stopping the latest eruption of Phil Mickelson.

For a little while he suggested he might have the resolve and the game to make the greatest impact of his career. He picked his shots of defiance with some strength of mind – and some formidable technique – but the problem was that the rest of the field and, most notably, Mickelson kept coming.

In the end Mickelson consumed the Scottish golf course and the English professional. He did it with great force and confidence. He carried the people with him and against this momentum Westwood could only do what he has always done, which is to play the best golf he could find in the most critical moments.

Westwood was what he has always been, a player of considerable talent and most impressive application. Phil Mickelson was also true to his deepest strength, which was to go all-out to win in any circumstances. It was a division which Westwood has almost certainly never before found quite so harsh.

Westwood Woe! Lee's major heartbreaks

2008 US Open

Denied play-off place by a single shot after a final round 73 at Torrey Pines, missing a birdie putt on 18. “It’s sickening,” he said afterwards.

2009 Open

Starting two behind Tom Watson on the final day, Westwood led after seven. Bogeys at 10, 15 and 16 followed and an overhit birdie putt on 18 saw him again miss a play-off. “It’s gone from frustration to sickness,” he said.

2010 Masters

Shared lead at halfway and led after Saturday, before succumbing to brilliance of Phil Mickelson, despite a commendable closing 71.

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