For Magnolia Lane read Memory Lane. A trip down Augusta National's famous driveway inevitably brings with it the recollections of Masters past – and, of course past masters – as Lee Westwood discovered earlier this week. And not all are guaranteed to emit that tingly, nostalgic feeling.
Before arriving here in Houston, the world No 2 was in Georgia on what has become his traditional reconnaissance for the season's first major. As ever, Westwood said "I felt like a kid in a sweet shop". "Every time it's like that," added the 37-year-old, who has been going there since he was in his early twenties. "I'm still amazed by it all. Just strolling around, soaking it up."
Yet as Westwood and his caddie, Billy Foster, were meticulously plotting their way through American golf's most startling property, at least one place remained off limits. "We couldn't bring ourselves to wander over to the trees at the 13th to see where Phil hit that shot from," he said yesterday. "Gave that one a miss. Neither of us can still believe he hit it close from there."
Phil is Phil Mickelson, the three-time Augusta champion who Westwood will partner in today's first round of the Shell Houston Open. As important as this prep event happens to be, the attention will inevitably drift to next week and the replays of that shot on the par-five. To recap, Mickelson went for a green guarded by a creek, 207 yards away, with his ball on pine straw, as two trees seemingly hugged each other a few feet away. "Anybody else would have chipped out," said Westwood. Somehow Mickelson hit a six-iron to within the pin's shadow. He missed the eagle putt, yet no one recalls that. Here was the "deal-clincher" for Mickelson, the deal-breaker for Westwood. It still hurts.
"Billy said to me when we were there the other day, 'I can't believe how unlucky you were at times'," said Westwood, who held the lead for so long. "The ninth, hitting the top of that slope, not rolling down and three-putting as a result; the 14th, hitting exactly the shot I wanted, again it stopping on the top of the slope where I had no shot. Things like that change the course of the tournament. Phil in the middle of the round hit a few bad shots but instead of being a couple over was a couple under. Generally, those things don't happen, especially in majors. So you can't get too disheartened, just got to keep believing in what you're doing. Hopefully it'll work out in the end."
If that sounds as if Westwood is leaving it to the fates to grant what is now universally considered an overdue major title, he isn't. These latest early-morning practice rounds at Augusta were as exhaustive – "we were out there on the course so long we missed lunch" – as the gym sessions which now frame a carefully choreographed schedule. Since Augusta last year, he has finished second in another major (The Open), sustained a serious injury, won a Ryder Cup and then, to cap it all, wrested the world No 1 tag from Tiger Woods. But through it all he kept his focus on what really matters. Majors, majors, majors...
"We all can see looking at my career that this is the thing that's left for me to achieve," said Westwood, who was top of the order for four months before Martin Kaymer assumed the role. "I know I'm good enough to contend in each and every major I play. I've started to show the consistency in majors I had in regular tournaments back in 1998-2000 when I was contending nearly every week. What I've learned is to peak at the right times. Didn't seem to be able to do that before. Now I'm giving up a little in the week-to-week tournaments but reaping the benefits in the majors. Yeah, you still should be able to win regular events if you're good enough. But you just need that extra gear in majors."
Westwood walked away last year, declaring he knew the extra gear he needed. Mickelson had just shown him what was possible around the greens. "Three years ago, my short-game was a four, last year it was probably a seven and now this year it's an eight or even a nine," said Westwood, whose coach Pete Cowen endorses this assessment. Westwood added: "It's certainly good enough to win at Augusta. Mind you, it was last year, the only trouble is it came up against a man with a short game of 11."
Westwood's one-liners have become part of the image. He always was sharp, but with the added profile brought by No 1 status and by his burgeoning obsession with Twitter, Westwood's fame has transcended to a new audience. But he is determined to stay, as he puts it, "real". At Cheltenham two weeks ago, he could be seen in the Guinness Village chatting with the punters, some of whom may have wanted to know why 2011 had begun so poorly.
"Look over the last few years, I've generally started slowly," he said. "Same last year. Actually, the preparation has gone well. I'm hitting it better than last year. The putting is getting close now, too. I've had a problem with alignment that Billy, Pete and my dad spotted. I was starting it a couple of inches off line; even on the four-footers. I've got a new putter in my bag for this week, I felt comfortable with it from the start."
If that's a radical change to make the week before the Masters, everything else has remained the same. "Last year, I put in the work beforehand and I can fall back on it this year," he said. "Learning the spots where you can't go, where not even Phil could get it up and down. Sometimes it's just a two- to three-yard difference between the areas where you have or haven't got a shot. Knowing such things certainly helps the patience levels."
As does the set-up away from the course. "I'm staying in the same house as last year," he said. "Dad's coming over and [my wife] Laurae and the kids [Sam, nine, and Poppy, six.] Sam's caddying for me in the par-three tournament. He's very excited. He can't wait to pull on the white overalls." Come a week on Sunday, there may be another garment bearing the Westwood legend.
Par for the course? Westwood's ups and downs since last year's Masters
* In last year's Masters at Augusta, Westwood finishes second, three shots behind winner Phil Mickelson. It is his third successive top-three finish in majors.
* He picks up a PGA Tour win in the St Jude Classic in June before another major runner-up position, finishing seven shots behind South African Louis Oosthuizen at the Open at St Andrews in July.
* October starts and ends well for Westwood. He recovers from an ankle injury to become a key member of Europe's Ryder Cup-winning team at Celtic Manor, before becoming world No 1 at the end of the month, ending Tiger Woods's 281-week reign and becoming the first European to occupy top spot since Nick Faldo in 1994.
* Westwood is again scuppered in his pursuit of a major in the USPGA when an ankle injury rules him out.
* Loses his No 1 ranking after 17 weeks, ceding it to German Martin Kaymer.
* Best performance of 2011 so far is a tied 15th in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, also in February.
Michael ButlerReuse content