You have some idea how tough this course is when a man drops three shots over the closing holes and feels his load is light. That was the whistling disposition of Lee Westwood, – whose post-round media conference here strayed into stand-up, such was the relief at signing for a 68. “What, you don’t think I look like I’m enjoying myself? I’ll show you miserable this afternoon.” Ah, the Worksop one-liner. How we have missed you.
Westwood was referring to the pain threshold that escalates by the hour in the Muirfield thumbscrew. At two under par Westwood was the leader in the clubhouse. With six to play he stood at five under. On this track, in these concrete conditions, the surrender of strokes is a relative concept. Ask Charl Schwartzel, who played alongside Westwood and also signed for a 68 to close three back on one over. Schwartzel believes he is right in the mix, so you can imagine how highly he regarded Westwood’s position.
“I thought he putted beautifully. The putts that he needed to make he has made. That’s been the difference with him this week. He’s made a whole bunch of putts that just keep the momentum. Around this sort of golf course those par putts are birdie putts at other tournaments. That’s definitely helped his confidence. You can see the way he’s walking, the way he’s playing, definitely a danger man.”
Not for some time has Westwood entered a major championship so lightly regarded. So far behind the Rorys and the Justins, both of whom laboured through the afternoon, has he fallen, his name was scrubbed from the pre-tournament media schedule. This heresy did not bother him. He has carried our hopes for so long he was grateful for the reprieve, not least for the added time it allowed with his son, Sam, staying with dad in a house beside the first tee.
It is a grand residence, complete with a snooker table dressed in baize the colour of a Rich Tea biscuit and a TV monitor that takes up one wall in a room dedicated to the purpose. Westwood has had swing sessions with Sean Foley and taken putting tips from Ian Baker-Finch. Of equal importance might just be the time spent hanging out with Sam away from the scrutiny of the golfing expert, potting snooker balls and slumped on a sofa in his shorts and T-shirt watching episodes of Bear Grylls, which was the case on the eve of this tournament.
Certainly, Westwood is at ease with himself. And why wouldn’t you be, given the way the week has gone? Of his round yesterday he said: “It was a good round of golf, played very well. It is not easy out there. Two under is a real bonus. It could be leading at the end of the day, you never know.”
Westwood is in familiar territory. None in the past five years has a more consistent record in majors, 10 top-10 finishes, including a second at the Masters and the Open in 2010. Though the latter was always Louis Oosthuizen’s to lose on the final day, Westwood will go to his grave believing only an act of divine providence, or a six-iron threaded between Georgia pines at Augusta’s 13th hole, which amounts to the same thing, denied him a championship that should have been his.
He played beautifully that week, led from the front and was in position A in the middle of the fairway when Phil Mickelson, out of position yet again, fashioned a shot for the ages from the copse to the right of the fairway to birdie that 13th hole. Today is clearly another whopper in the search for an answer to the question why Westwood has never won a major. Maybe tomorrow the question will have relevance no more.
“I love playing the Open Championship. This is the biggest tournament of the year for me, being a Brit. Why not enjoy it out there? It’s tough for everyone so smile your way through. I was hitting the ball really well. The finish is tough, 16, 17, 18 are playing hard. It’s like most major championships. It’s a grind, not a birdie fest.”
Westwood, who bogeyed the last, begins the weekend tied with Tiger Woods, who birdied it, a two-shot swing that readily symbolises the Muirfield experience. Play correctly and the course rewards – get out of line and she brings the hammer down, which is how it should be. The tension this week has centred on the fine margin between good and evil. A line is crossed when good shots are routinely penalised by caprice. In those circumstances the course becomes a lottery and yields not a worthy winner necessarily but a lucky one. In extremis Muirfield has arguably been borderline over the opening two days, but never less than compelling.
Schwartzel was hitting his six-iron 280 yards and firing the ball at pace into bunkers 375 yards away with the driver. “How do you judge that?” he asked. He had a point. The overnight leader Zach Johnson, teeing off at 3.07pm began with a bogey at the first. Though he recovered it with a birdie at the fourth, successive dropped shots at five and six and another at eight reinforced the view of Muirfield’s dog-day afternoons. Rafael Cabrera-Bello carded a 74, seven shots worse than his first-round score.
A terrific up and down from the island bunker at the last gave Miguel Angel Jimenez the clubhouse lead on three under par. “The Mechanic”, as he is known, resisted the prevailing orthodoxy to engineer a level-par 71, posting 14 pars, two birdies and two bogeys in a round of impressive consistency.
The veteran American flyers Mark O’Meara and Tom Lehman, who reached such heights in the first round, left the second day correction facility on three over par after a 78 and 77 respectively. And they had the best of the conditions. A day that began with flat seas gently lapping the East Lothian shore ended with the surf, and the hopes of a certain Englishman, up. Westwood ho, anyone?