What has already been a magnificent tournament will assume epic proportions today if Lee Westwood is the last man standing at Muirfield. The Englishman, seeking a first Major victory at 40, goes into the final round of the Open Championship with a two-shot lead over Tiger Woods, a golfer chasing a little history of his own, and Hunter Mahan.
Westwood demonstrated the nerve required to see him home with two 20-footers over the closing holes, one for a bogey at 16, the other a birdie at 17, to steal the momentum on a day of oscillating fortunes. Westwood’s career has delivered so much. No one has won more in prize money on the European Tour. More than 40 wins worldwide speak of a talent that runs deep, yet still no Major. He has come close in this tournament, of course, blowing a two-shot lead at Turnberry with nine to play in 2009, but this is no time to roll out the failures.
Westwood has held leads of two shots or more after 54 holes on 12 occasions and converted 10 of them. He said after his round of 70 that he would enjoy his dinner, picture himself lifting the Claret Jug, then erase all that stuff from his head and walk to the first tee alongside Mahan this afternoon with the game face on. “I’ll think about winning the Open championship at some stage, I’m sure. I don’t see anything wrong with that. But when it comes to teeing off I should be in the same frame of mind I was today. I didn’t feel any pressure. I felt nice and calm, in control of what I was doing.”
An afternoon in the company of Woods chasing down the greatest prize in golf told us much about his enhanced constitution here. Westwood preached patience at the end of his second round, and acceptance when the ball does not bounce your way. He would need every ounce of that as the pendulum swung back and forth. Only nine players began the weekend in red numbers.
If there was little the R&A could do to combat the climate, they might at least be generous with the pins. Rounds of 68 and 69 by Richard Sterne and Shingo Katayama in the first group out suggested the organisers indeed had a heart, though by the end only Westwood, Mahan and Woods were under par.
The applause that greeted the overnight leader Miguel Angel Jimenez when he sauntered on to the range 30 minutes before his round was loaded with affection. They love the bendy eccentricity, the exaggerated stretching routines all executed with a smouldering cigar clamped to his lips. The ostentatious ponytail, an absurd affectation on any other 49-year-old, is tolerated on the Spaniard. He pushed and he pulled, he stretched and he tweaked, hit a few balls then, vamos, off he went to meet destiny head on.
The greens were watered overnight and 2mm sprinkled on the fairways. The early starters reported slightly softer conditions but by the time the leaders went out shortly after 3pm, Muirfield was fast and furious again, pounded by unrelenting sunshine and winds gusting at 15mph. Henrik Stenson, who lost a fortune in the financial scandal perpetrated by Allen Stanford, dropped a shot at the first. Jimenez was a victim at the second, Westwood the third and Woods the fourth. At least Muirfield was indiscriminate in letting the players have it.
In this epic game of snakes and ladders it was Westwood who made the first significant move, holing out from off the green for an eagle at the fifth. A birdie two holes later took him into a three-shot lead at four under par, all too much you would imagine for his parents, Trish and John, and son Sam, walking among the vast gallery watching his penultimate pairing with Woods.
The lead had gone by the turn. Successive bogeys were countered by a Woods birdie at the ninth. Locked together at two under par, they turned for home one clear of the field. Jimenez was listing badly. Bogeys at four and five and a double at eight took him to one over par.
It was time for a deep intake of smoke and a quiet word with himself. Though he rallied briefly with birdies at eight and 13, he dropped four shots over the closing five holes to finish three over par.
Dustin Johnson, who started with a share of second place, dropped four shots by the turn to drift down a leaderboard of restless complexion. He too would finish on three over. Moving in the opposite direction, Mahan bolted from two over at the start to reach one under after a round of 68. Mahan, you might recall, chased Justin Rose most of the way home at the US Open before faltering at the 17th playing in the final group on Sunday. His up-and-down out of the island bunker at the last yesterday revealed bottle aplenty. “Any score in the red is good,” Mahan said.
An afternoon of quiet accretion also saw Adam Scott move into contention. The Masters champion was round in 70 to close one behind Mahan on level par. Ian Poulter dropped a shot at the last for the second time this week. His round of 75 took him to five over par, one better than Darren Clarke, who shot 76.
Westwood edged ahead again with a birdie at the 14th but a poor tee shot at the short 16th left him in long grass and deep trouble. If he does prevail today, he will remember the 20-foot putt he drained to limit the damage to a bogey. The birdie at 17, coupled with Woods’ bogey, iced the cake.
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