James Lawton: Westwood's resolve is the sign of a future champion

He may still be knocking on the door but he is no longer pursued by criticism
Click to follow
The Independent Online

After the tumultuous, brilliant 74th US Masters, far from the least uplifting chore was to sit amid the Georgian nightfall and listen to Lee Westwood proclaiming that his personal fight is still far from over.

Westwood had been here before in very similar circumstances and his thoughts, naturally enough, were centred on a precise location. It was Amen Corner, somewhere you might have thought he wanted to bury his competitive heart after watching Phil Mickelson an hour or so earlier produce one of the greatest of golf shots on his way to a third Green Jacket.

For a second time in his career, Westwood was losing a lead he had crafted here over three days of monumental dedication.

He came to one of the most fabled pieces of real estate in all of golf with every reason to believe that, just a week or so before his 37th birthday, he was still contending for his first major title. The trouble was the company he was keeping, as it was back in 1999 when Westwood first saw all his work drain away.

Eleven years ago he was paired with Tiger Woods, who, as it was for him this last Sunday when almost everything in his life had changed, could not produce a game that made him comfortable. So the Tiger turned to Westwood and said, "Go on, now bring it home."

Westwood would later recall, "I'd never been in that position before and when Tiger said that my legs turned to jelly."

This, at least, did not happen when Mickelson unfurled his singular piece of brilliance at the 13th hole, the exit of Amen Corner, sending his shot flying off the pine shavings between two giant trees and setting up a stunning birdie, and this is another reason not to stop believing in Westwood.

He didn't unravel this time, he just slugged it out with a man who, when the golfing muse settles on his shoulders, is capable of producing some of the most arresting, improbable shot-making we are ever likely to see.

Indeed, Westwood took defeat at the highest level of the game in the manner to which over the last few years we have become accustomed. He took it as another of those blows that can make a man who may be destined, one day, to be a champion strong at the latest broken place.

Certainly the fear that Westwood, who for three days played superbly here, would be found crushed after this addition to his near misses in the US Open, the PGA and, most shatteringly, last year's Open at Turnberry, was dispelled in the wake of Mickelson's extraordinary triumph, one that left him three shots ahead of second-placed Westwood.

He looked a man who has learned to absorb some heavy blows indeed without losing the idea that one day it will be somebody else on the canvas. He said, "I shot 71 at the end of the day, which is not a terrible score around Augusta when you're in the lead. Phil shot 67, which generally wins a major when you are there or thereabouts. He won fair and square. When he needed to, he played the shots of a champion.

"He said to me in the scorer's hut that he knew how I felt. He had been the man knocking on the door, finishing second and third, and wondering if the door does ever open. 'Suddenly it does,' he said, 'and winning majors becomes easier in your mind.' He also told me I had been playing the best golf of anyone recently and that I should just keep plugging away.

"Yes, I had a good look at the shot which sent Phil on his way to another Green Jacket. I was right behind him but behind a different tree. It was a shot that maybe only Phil Mickelson could pull off. Most people would have just chipped that one out. But you know, that's what great players do – they pull out great shots at the right time. You see something like that and it is a reminder that you never stop learning."

If there is no tendency here to lament Westwood's latest disappointment there is the best of reasons. In his case, it is easier to see not another intrusion of malignant fate but rather fresh evidence that some things he said on a flight here two years ago were more, much more, than the random thoughts of a multi-millionaire sportsman getting a little anxious about his career legacy.

What Westwood said was that he was weary of the emptiness which no amount of financial comfort for himself and his family could ever fill. "In the last years of my career," he said, "I'm going to work harder than I have done before. I have plenty of talent, and I've won titles all over the world, but I've reached the point when I will only be satisfied by winning one of the big ones. It's no longer good enough to tell myself, 'well, I have done well enough, I've won a few things, and I should be happy for a great life.'

"No, that won't do any longer. I want to win one of the big ones."

That was Westwood in the middle of the third phase of his career, one that still consumes him long after the slogging march from the 266th place in the world rankings which made such a mockery of his natural gifts.

Westwood's caddie, Billy Foster, who once minded the bag of Seve Ballesteros, was still a fervent believer when they walked from the course as American golf celebrated the latest triumph of its favourite and most mercurial son.

Foster said: "Lee was close to quitting at one point in his career – at least he said he was. Sometimes you do offer up the worst case scenario when you are down in the dumps. I don't think he actually meant it but he was very low around eight years ago because he couldn't see a way back.

"The reason he made it back is through sheer hard work. No one sees the hours he puts in at the gym. It has seen him become so much stronger and longer off the tee. He knows his short game still has to improve. He told me he got a master-class from Phil and knows he has to get to a higher level on and around the greens not just to win one major but several.

"I'm sure he will do it. He's so focused and determined and you are only just beginning to see the results of all the work he has put in. I'm proud of him. He may not have won this time but he will always be a winner in my eyes because he has taken charge of his life and his career. I know his day will come.

"On Sunday clearly he didn't play as well as he did on the first three days but he was very relaxed and you could see he was thinking clearly. He's got three majors left this year that will suit him more than Augusta. His chipping is improving all the time and the bunker shot at the seventh showed how much he has improved his sand-play. It was plugged and for a moment I thought he had holed it."

When Westwood first decided that he had to re-make himself, that he had to work harder, hurt more, and eventually see himself in an entirely different light, one voice in his ear might have been the hectoring one of Gary Player, the South African golf zealot, who won three times here along with six other major titles.

Player watched the young Westwood back in the late Nineties and declared him a serious case of under-achievement. Said Player, "Lee Westwood has great talent but he's just not making the most of it. For a start, he should lose some weight. The other morning I was at the gym and who did I see working out? It was this kid Tiger Woods, who everyone knows is going to win a stack of majors."

There was also a rebuke from Arnold Palmer, a four-time Masters champion and winner of seven majors, that still lingers in the mind. Westwood recalls, "I had gone close to winning Arnie's tournament in Florida and was having a drink with the winner, Ernie Els. Palmer came in and said it was nice when opponents got together after the battle but if he had lost like I had he would not have been drinking with the winner. He would have been chewing the grass."

Lee Westwood may still be knocking on the door but he is no longer pursued by such criticism from men who were always prepared to pay the price of being a winner. Here it is certainly not hard to believe that what he did over the last few days was put down still another donation.

Six of the best ever: Shots that won the Masters

2010: Phil Mickelson

Was set to lose his lead on the 13th playing the final round after a wayward tee shot left him amongst the trees. However, the American hit a stunning shot between two pine trunks which cleared the water and hit the green.


2005: Tiger Woods on the 16th

A chip from the rough dribbled 20ft down the hill towards the pin and paused on the edge of the hole before dropping in to the delight of Tiger and the crowd.


1988: Sandy Lyle on the 18th

On the last the Scot hit a seven-iron bunker shot to within 10ft. He followed it up with a simple putt and a famous jig to become the first Briton to wear the Green Jacket.


1987: Larry Mize on the 11th

In a sudden death play-off with Greg Norman, the American holed a 45-yard chip on the second play-off hole to win the tournament.


1975: Jack Nicklaus on the 16th

A 40-foot birdie putt all but sealed the fifth of six Masters victories for the Golden Bear, as he held off the challenge of Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf in the final round.

1935: Gene Sarazen on the 15th

Sunk a 235-yard effort that became known as 'the shot heard round the world'. The albatross wiped out the three shots by which he trailed the leader.