We are sitting in the caddies’ hut at Royal Aberdeen supping tea from plastic cups. Caddie Billy Foster is on the teapot and all is well with Lee Westwood’s world. If ever there were a good time to slip in the moment the Claret Jug began to fall from his grasp a year ago, this was it.
Westwood went to the tee at the par-three seventh on the final day at Muirfield with a three-shot lead. The wind was swirling, making club selection awkward, not quite a nine-iron, not quite eight-iron long. What to do? “I went with the nine because I didn’t want to go long,” Westwood explained. “It plugged in the front bunker. I ended up making a good bogey from there because I couldn’t get it out of the trap.”
Golf is so much about momentum and, at the top of the leaderboard, about what you might lose. Unencumbered by expectation and the prospect of loss, Phil Mickelson, who started the day five shots back, was swinging freely under the radar. Westwood was playing the field as well as the course.
“At the next [eighth] I hit it just into the left rough, played for a flying lie and it didn’t fly. I made bogey there. At the ninth I hit it into the left rough, just two bad swings and my responsibility. It is such fine margins at major championships. That is why they are special to win. You can’t afford to make minor mistakes.
“You do what you think is right at the time. You are obviously trying your hardest to win. It just didn’t happen. Again. I thought I did well to get into that position, leading by three. It didn’t feel like I had played that well over the first three days. It was really my putting that was good.”
Since finishing third behind Tiger Woods at the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, Westwood has posted 12 top-10 finishes in 25 majors, plus, on a further four occasions in this six-year period, has finished inside the top 20. He has twice been a runner-up and four times finished third. Though he missed the cut last month at the US Open, he finished seventh at the Masters in April.
There is not a golfer on the planet yet to win a major who comes close to Westwood’s consistency. Even those who have won in that period, including Woods, can’t match it. Westwood’s strike-rate was good enough to take him to world No 1 for 23 weeks in 2011-12, a career feature that generated much debate in the absence of a major victory. Now, as then, he has an entertaining if forthright response to those who still question his credentials.
“I don’t think there is a glaring weakness to my game. When you get to world No 1 there can’t be a serious weakness. People say he can’t putt, or my short game is not very good. Well, that’s bollocks. I have a good short game and I’m a good putter. It’s just that my strengths are in other places. They say he is not as good a putter nor has as good a short game as Phil. Well, that’s like saying he does not have as good a short game as Seve. You are talking about the best players ever to play the game. Stupid comparisons made by ignorant people. You can’t contend in so many majors and not be a great player.”
At Muirfield, as at the Masters in 2010, the 41-year-old’s nemesis was the remarkable Mickelson. “Phil won from five back. You can be even further behind on these courses. Phil said it was the round of his life, a 66 on Sunday when 71 is not a given shows what can happen.”
An eternal optimist, Westwood will breeze into Hoylake for this week’s Open paying scant regard to Friday’s missed cut in Scotland. After a nightmare start, five over after five holes, Westwood book-ended his Aberdeen experience by dropping three more over the closing five holes on Friday. In between, he fashioned eight birdies. This being Westwood, he moves to Royal Liverpool with the glass half-full: “You would like to be playing well coming in to the Open, but it’s links golf, very different. You can find a way around the course. That said, in a breeze you want to be controlling that ball flight, striking it well. I’m starting to see some positives.”
A three-week break after the missed cut at the US Open has given Westwood fresh impetus, particularly the time spent at his parents’ home in Worksop, immersed in old, familiar mores. “It’s been good for me. Leading up to the US Open I was starting to feel a bit jaded, not really ready to play golf. I feel ready to go now. I’m back in the gym trying to shift some weight. It’s good for the psyche. It makes you feel good about yourself.
“I’ve enjoyed being back home. They had a tournament at Worksop Golf Club, the Logan Trophy. There were people in it I grew up playing with. I thought they were way older than me, but some were only 36. That’s what living in Florida does for you, or living in Worksop.”
And so to Hoylake and another opportunity to fill in that maddening major blank– and, perhaps, put a sock in one or two mouths. “I’m looking forward to it. The Open is the one, the most prestigious championship in the world.
“I’ve come close in the past few years. It would be nice to close one out.”
Five other Brits to watch
The Open has not been kind to him since the time he chipped in as a 17-year-old amateur for fourth place at Royal Birkdale in 1998, but a win on the PGA Tour a fortnight ago sees him arrive at Royal Liverpool this week in prime form.
The Open is his favourite major. Has had a second (2008) and a third at Muirfield 12 months ago. It’s Ryder Cup year, time for those eyes to start popping and the putts to start dropping. Imagine Poulter going to Gleneagles as a major winner.
The man to beat. Imperious off the tee, his opening round at Royal Aberdeen this week demonstrated his potency when the rest of his game is in sync, though his second-round 78 showed what can happen when it’s not. McIlroy has an extra gear whatever the weather and the ability to lap the field.
Why not? He won from nowhere in 2011 when the weather closed in around Royal St Georges. Lives on the links at Portrush, and if the wind blows there is no one better equipped; mood swings permitting, of course.
His fifth-place finish in 2008 was the best since Rose as an amateur. Went one better the following year and would have contested the play-off at Turnberry with Tom Watson and Stewart Cink had he parred the last