There are words beginning with the letter W that Lee Westwood doesn’t mind. Wedge, wind, wage and wood come to mind. Worksop is fine. It ought to be. It’s where he was born and lived until he moved recently to the United States.
But the word wicker is a no-no. Don’t mention it in Westwood’s company. Not after what the wicker basket atop the flagstick on the 11th hole did to both his ball and his momentum in the first round. The wicker baskets used instead of flags at Merion are famous throughout golf, as distinctive as the flagpole at Royal Lytham, the Swilcan Bridge at the Old Course, the Barry Burn at Carnoustie.
Such is their attraction that the club has to bring them in each night and lock them up to prevent people stealing them. Such is their fame, they might be better known than the course where they are so distinctive, better known than the bunkers, which are nicknamed the “white faces of Merion.”
But Westwood would probably be happy if he never saw one again. As far as he is concerned the shepherds who used to keep their food in such baskets on the end of their crooks to stop the sheep nibbling at their lunch when they weren’t looking had the right idea. Keep them away from a golf course and certainly from a green.
In his opening round Westwood was going along very comfortably, three under par, when his approach shot on the 11th ricocheted off one of these baskets and raced off the green back down the fairway. It was a piece of very bad luck and wouldn’t have happened if there had been a flag made of canvas fluttering on the end of the stick. He was three under par at that stage. Suddenly his forward momentum stalled and though he had a round of 70 he wondered “what if?”
Westwood had no such adventures with a wicker basket in yesterday’s third round, which he began at the 11th in a three-ball with Carl Pettersson and Paul Lawrie. He was striking the ball well, looked assured and managed not to let himself be disrupted by Pettersson’s wayward play.
The Swede was 50 yards offline on the short 17th and hit a tower containing several TV studios from the tee of the 18th. Westwood’s start was not as good as John Senden’s as he birdied the first two holes, but it was steady enough.
It has been said so often Westwood must be tired of hearing it that while he is a wonderfully accurate driver and a good iron player, he is poor around the greens. “If only his short game matched his long game” is something you often hear. Westwood’s move from Worksop late last year when he, aged 39, uprooted his wife and children and took them to Palm Beach, Florida, was motivated by his desire to be able to play and practice in better weather conditions than he endured in the winter months in Nottinghamshire.
On the 17th, his seventh hole, he gave a demonstration of this part of his game. It didn’t look rusty or weak. In fact it looked rather good. He had 25 feet to the flagstick from where his ball lay in very light grass. It was slightly downhill and the green was very fast. In other words, it was just the sort of shot to test a man with a supposedly suspect short game. Westwood slowly swung his wedge, caught the ball crisply so that it flew perhaps 10 feet in the air before rolling to the side of the hole, where he sank his putt for a par.
He had a similar shot on the 18th after his second had trickled over the back of the green. This one was much easier. The green was flat and he was 50 feet away. But it still required deftness, soft hands, and Westwood had them. This time the ball ghosted up to the hole, but this time he missed the putt for a par.
“I’ll be alright at the Open,” Westwood had said after his second round, a 77, that was just good enough to keep him in action over the weekend.
“Peter Dawson [chief executive of the R & A who organise the Open] has assured me they have no intention of changing the flags at Muirfield to wicker baskets.”