James Lawton: The putt that made Lee Westwood believe

As he rolled it fully 60 feet into the hole for an eagle to take the outright lead, you could sense Briton felt the moment that could define his career may be close

Muirfield

Sixty feet it rolled across some of the most treacherous terrain golf has ever known and as it gathered pace it also accrued a quite remarkable certainty.

This was the eagle putt that gave Lee Westwood the outright lead of the 142nd Open yesterday and offered the promise that he might just fulfil his competitive life.

For some years now the 40-year-old from Nottinghamshire has made a major title the benchmark of his ambitions. He stood back from all his wealth and the ease of a luxuriously upholstered existence and declared: “I suppose it would be easy to settle for all that I have gained from golf.

“I could have an easy ride home, returning to my big house and all the advantages my career has gained for my family and me, but you know I want that major – and I’m ready to give it everything I have.”

So he lost weight, he worked hard in the gym and he said: “I just don’t want to grow old thinking that I could have done more to win the major title that might define my career in a different way.”

Certainly it might – but also it could be the reproach that, for all his commitment, and all his brilliant technique, would always be lurking in the shadows, always ready to spring still another ambush.

It did so most devastatingly in Augusta three years ago when he finished second to Phil Mickelson after the American had produced a career shot from a carpet of pine needles, a stunning invention fashioned in a patch of light between the trees.

He was third and tied third in the US Opens of 2008 and 2011, he was second in The Open three years ago. His life was decorated with near misses but still he believed he could achieve the success that separates the great players from the merely good.

He came here amid the seeping sense that his time may well have come and gone. There was hardly a mention of Lee Westwood in all the talk of his younger compatriot Justin Rose maintaining the momentum of his US open title, of Luke Donald maybe finally making an impact on a major and of Tiger Woods at last getting his hands on his 15th major title.

Westwood was politely celebrated for his enduring ambition here these last few days – right up to the moment he delivered the eagle that landed with the force of a thunderclap.

Then, suddenly, he was three shots clear of the menacing Tiger, who had walked into the vacuum left by the implosion of overnight leader Miguel Angel Jimenez. Westwood hijacked the par-three seventh with a ravishing tee-shot, then drilled home the putt almost as a formality.

He had a new swagger, an authority that had been so elusive at the most vital moments of his career. He was wielding his driver with trust and confidence as Woods continued to rely on his long irons. It was as though Westwood was grasping, with more intensity than ever before, that there had never been a greater need to believe in his own formidable talent.

Yet the ascendency over Woods was hauntingly brief; it was more a promise of unlikely rewards for the boldest spirit than much more than a breath of any sure-fire certainty and when Westwood dropped shots on the eight and the ninth, the Tiger was back at his shoulder and then dead level.

Westwood, though, was not about to surrender that sense that he was indeed fighting as hard as at any time in his career. He kept on unfurling the driver and on the 12th green he produced a long and twisting putt of superb quality that stopped a foot or so from its target.

He wore the look of a man who knew that he was indeed at another potentially pivotal point of his career. The Tiger also plainly understood that in all the struggles he had known since his golf, and his life, unravelled so spectacularly in 2009, he might not have had a better chance to return to the title-winning facility that threatened to be so unprecedented.

The result was the promise at least of one of the great hand-to-hand fights in the history of The Open tournament. Woods had a buoyancy that was sometimes elusive on his way to a reclaiming of his number one world ranking. He was taking the bad breaks with a remarkable degree of calm.

Before going out, Woods had declared: “I’ve put myself in a good position and I’m going to be happy just to keep plodding along. In some ways you are at the mercy of the course and some very difficult conditions, but all you can do is make sure you give yourself every chance of finish on top.

“I’ve been doing this for some time now and I’m confident that sooner or later I will get my rewards.”

Lee Westwood, of course, has been doing it for a lifetime and still without a wisp of a guarantee. However, if he wanted to reminded himself of some lingering possibilities he could always take another look at the eagle that might still change his life.

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