James Lawton: Hungry Tiger's unbroken grip gives lean Westwood a new appetite for success

'It is partly the Tiger factor. Hot or cold, he is always in contention'
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The Independent Online

There are probably a thousand ways of measuring the impact of Tiger Woods and his extraordinary annexation of golf and you could see some of the more familiar ones when he came prowling on to the practice tee on a soft, moist dawn here yesterday. But then the eulogies, and the genuflections, have been more or less unbroken for more than a decade now and more intriguing, maybe, is his current effect on all those golfers who are fighting to believe that they can still operate successfully on their own potentially world-class terms.

Or, to put it another way, consider a competitive bar set so high that the formerly good-living, easy-going Lee Westwood would willingly select, from many calorie-laden options, a lunch consisting of a few spoonfuls of carrot soup and a small bowl of pasta.

Flying in here with Westwood, who for a while in his relative youth was considered Britain's best chance of following Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam into a US Masters' Green Jacket, was certainly an intriguing guide into one talented golfer's redefined ambition.

Somewhere over the mid-Atlantic he confided: "If I'm very honest I have to say that it is beginning to get to me that after a lot of success, a lot of titles around the world [29 of them] I'm still looking for my first major win – it was so very close in Augusta in 1999, but I wasn't ready for it, I couldn't close in on the Green Jacket, and yes it hurts me in a way that perhaps I haven't acknowledged it up to now.

"Yes, I suppose you could say it is partly the Tiger factor. It doesn't matter whether he's hot or cold, he is always there and I suppose right now his achievements are making everyone look at themselves more closely.

"There is obviously a different perception of him by the pros in the locker room than that of the public. Close up, his fellow professionals see that like everybody else he has his weaknesses, he's not a god, but then when you come to try to beat him, well, that's where the awe and the pressure comes in. It's not that he is living on another planet, just that he bears down so well whenever he is in place."

Nine years ago Westwood was in position to bear down here as never before or since. Still in his mid-20s, he shared the lead going into the last nine but Amen Corner did not deliver any hallelujahs for the young man who remains rooted in the mores and the style of his native Worksop. He was ambushed by the sheer nerve and invention of Jose Maria Olazabal's short game, and his own doubts and now, given the natural strength of his long game and his putting, he is obliged to review his record in the majors with a sigh: 40 appearances, 13 missed cuts and a mere five finishes in the top 10. "I know I can do better, and I do believe I have put myself into position to do so," he says.

After the calamity at Amen Corner, his fall was long and sustained as he bumped down into 266th place in the world rankings – and gave an early point to a lecture delivered to him, and his friend Darren Clarke, by the zealous winner of majors Gary Player in 1997. "If I was controlling their careers," said Player, "they would be in the gym every day. They are brilliant young talents but I can see they have to work harder if they are to deliver their potential."

At 34, Westwood plainly recognises that Player's sermonising has a relevance which grows a little stronger, and more urgent, each day. He is in the gym now and looking trimmer – with a 34 inch waist against last year's 40 – than ever before as he plays comfortably to his current ranking of 18th in the world.

"Really," he says, "I do believe it is time to make some kind of move, some statement if you like. I do believe I'm good enough to win a major, but you can't talk your way into one. You have a certain number of chances and you have to take one of them or probably suffer a lot of regrets in later life."

There was no need for angst in Atlanta's Fulton Airport on Sunday night after some impeccable diet management. Several hours and thousands of miles after the spartan lunch, Westwood was offered the choice of a fancy cheeseburger or a slim-line Caesar salad. He chose the salad and said: "You see, I'm trying to be good."

Sandy Lyle, a man who could not check his own fall – after adding the Green Jacket here to an earlier Open title 20 years ago – has noted the strength of Westwood's effort.

"I've been very impressed with the way Lee has got himself fit and bounced back after a few years without a win," says Lyle. "He's played well this year and is top of the European rankings for the Ryder Cup and now he will be trying to win the Masters with his confidence very high. He made a great attempt the year Olly won but when you look at the form he's put together, and the effort he has made, I feel he can do a lot better this time."

Westwood is in no mood to overstate his confidence, perhaps inevitably given the level of dominance the Tiger now exerts in so many hearts and minds, but there is perceptible thrust to a more defined jaw- line when he says: "If I'm going to do anything, it should be some time soon. For many years I suppose I was happy with what I had achieved, I'd won titles around the world and I had a very good life for my family and myself. I love living near to my roots, and even though I know that with three majors out of four happening in the States I would probably be better off living somewhere like Orlando in Florida, I do know what I need to feel good about life. I don't want to compromise that, but I suppose I'm in the mood to make more sacrifices than I have done at some times in the past.

"Sometimes I think about something Arnold Palmer said to me when I came close to winning at his tournament at Bay Hill. Ernie Els won and we are good mates and we were enjoying a drink afterwards when Arnie came in. He said it was great that opponents could sit down and enjoy each other's company after the battle was over, he used to like doing that, but he also said that he had seen me smiling when I came off the course. 'Hell,' Arnie said, 'if that had happened to me I would have been chewing the grass'."

So this is another lecture that has come to settle hard beside the one from Player in this time of the Tiger. Westwood's short game, which was found so wanting when the Masters seemed within his grasp nine years ago, has improved sharply under the guidance of coach Mark Roe and many of his old certainties on the tee and the green have returned. The key, he agrees, is not so much technical but psychological.

"Probably what Tiger represents more than anything," says Westwood, "is the ability to deliver results whatever nick he is in. He has persuaded himself that he should win at every opportunity, and if he doesn't he believes it is just wrong."

Westwood is no doubt some way away from such conviction but there are, he agrees, some new stirrings – a sense that under the shadow of Tiger Woods it has perhaps been too easy to settle for something less than his best. It means that with Woods at not much better than even odds to win everything that is placed before him, and however many times, Westwood is offered at 33-1 to finally seize a prize that once lay within his grasp.

It is, heaven knows, an outside bet but perhaps it is warmed by the knowledge of something happening inside a fine golfer. Lee Westwood has concluded he owes himself more than another genuflection before the man who has apparently forgotten how to lose.

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