James Lawton: Westwood grasps nettle by abandoning comfort zone in pursuit of major glory

He wants to feel, before ageing bones seize up, he has exploited all his talent
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The Independent Online

No one is saying there should be cries of "You the man" and, worse still, "In the hole", every time Lee Westwood strikes the golf ball at Royal Birkdale later this week. But then on the other hand it is a long time since a British golfer, or most any other kind of sportsman for that matter, has been so entitled to some enthusiastic support from his own people. This hasn't always been the position taken here. Indeed, there have been times when Westwood has not exactly done an immense job in banishing the belief that since Nick Faldo went grumping off into the rest of his life we have been singularly short of a golfer to compete truly at the highest level of the game.

Lots of contenders, of course, lots of likely lads; Ian Poulter shouting the odds and Luke Donald poised so often to make the big move that somehow meanders off course. But, outside of the chance that the splendidly resilient Justin Rose will one day rekindle the glory he found on the Lancashire links as a teenager, who has threatened to come home with a big one since Paul Lawrie won the Carnoustie shoot-out that came after the breaking of Jean van de Velde? Only Westwood, as it happens.

"Truly compete" is, of course, a relative term in the age of the Tiger, but while various obscurities like Ben Curtis and Zach Johnson have occasionally emerged to profit from one of the great man's off days, where was the nation's most gifted player? He was, by his own admission, wallowing in a comfort zone that appeared, rather like his luxurious travel and millionaire income, to have few boundaries.

Nearly a decade ago Gary Player, who can be a fearfully self-regarding old martinet but is maybe redeemed somewhat by the fact that he won 163 titles, nine majors and that, at the age of 72, he could probably shin up and down a clubhouse drainpipe without breaking sweat, delivered a chilling critique of the man from Nottinghamshire – and his cigar-chomping friend Darren Clarke. "These guys could beat the world," said Player. "They've got oodles of talent but that doesn't mean anything if you're not prepared to work hard. They're overweight and relying entirely on their ability to hit the ball. In this day and age it's just not enough. This morning when I went to the gym, who was there? It was this kid Tiger Woods, of course. He's an athlete and he's going to win a stack of majors."

Westwood didn't really listen then. Why should he? He was on his way to 29 titles scattered around the world and the European Order of Merit prize in 2000. But Westwood, at the age of 35, is listening now – not to Player or any other preacher, but to himself.

The word he is receiving is that so far it is just not good enough. He wants something more than the unending good life. He wants that most precious reward that can come only to the most gifted of sportsmen. He wants to feel, at least once before ageing bones begin to seize up, that he has exploited all his talent, that beyond a good cheque he collected one of golf's most significant pieces of silverware.

It will not worry him if he gets hold of the one that carries the asterisk of the Tiger's non-attendance. The Tiger is not omnipotent. He doesn't always burn up the track and that's why names like Johnson and Trevor Immelman and Curtis have their names on the honour scrolls, and if there was any doubt that the new, slimmer Westwood had convinced himself that he could play well even in the head-to-head presence of the Tiger with a major at stake, it surely dissolved on the cliffs of Torrey Pines last month when he missed the US Open play-off by a shot. He didn't crack under the aura of his playing partner, not going down the stretch anyway. Most wrote him off when he dropped a couple of shots going into the back nine, but then he was steady and competitive every step of the way.

He was encountered on the way to the US Masters in Augusta and what he said then was beautifully vindicated in California. Said Westwood: "Sometimes I think about what Arnold Palmer said to me when I came close to winning his tournament at Bay Hill in Florida. 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 he saw me smiling when I came off the course. 'Hell,' said Arnie, 'if that had happened to me I would have been chewing the grass'."

Westwood also said: "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 don't want to go away from my roots in England, but I suppose I'm just in the mood to make more sacrifices than I have in the past. I want to win a major and I want that badly."

The golf cognoscenti say that he is far and away the strongest British contender on a course he likes and should favour him as long as he continues to maintain the improved chipping that once used to be a blatant weakness. He attended to that with the one coach he retains, Mark Roe.

He also fulfilled the duty of every gifted sportsman. He took a hard look at his performance and gave it his rating. It just wasn't, given his talent, high enough. In these times of our embattled sport, this alone makes him worth a shout at Royal Birkdale. There is even reason to believe he might just win.

Will Ronaldinho mark milestone or millstone for City?

Not so long ago a Manchester City fan would have been entitled to punch the air at the prospect of seeing Ronaldinho in his colours.

He was a hero of Brazil and a light of the game, which is, when you think about it, saying pretty much the same thing. So why does the news that City have bid £25m leave us so cold?

It is because Ronaldinho is so plainly, and so quickly, at the most familiar milestone of all in modern football. He is at that point where he is looking for the money and some would say that his performances for Barcelona since their triumph in the Champions League more than two years ago have blared out the fact.

So you don't tell Ronaldinho and his agent brother about the glories of your past or your hopes for the future. You just give them the bottom line.

Where does this leave a manager of the standards and the commitment of Mark Hughes, who moved down the road from Blackburn because, understandably enough, he wanted the kind of budget it would take to compete with the best?

Almost certainly, you have to believe, debating with the rest of us where the game is heading.

A few years ago £25m might just have bought some ultimate football dream. Today, what price just another nightmare?

Time for Freddie to take serious stance in talent show

Freddie Flintoff has come full circle. The hero of the 2005 Ashes is now, we are told, the man to lift us up again after that hard-nosed South African fightback at Lord's.

After severe injury, and despite some of the most flagrant abandonment of a sporting nation's affection and trust, he is once again guaranteed a thunderous reception if he should appear in the next Test.

There are, of course, several reasons for this. One is that Flintoff is indeed an authentic hero, the performer of stirring deeds and the owner of big and explosive talent. The other is that, behind the frequently laddish exterior, there is a demonstrably sweet man.

Yet surely there has to be a caution.

Freddie's yesterdays are longer than his tomorrows. He is in his 31st year. The truth, let's face it, is that we are not so much talking about a saviour's return but his last chance. To prove himself, this is, as a serious professional sportsman rather than an irredeemably big, daft lad.