Down by the river Usk in October is no place to perform the full Monty, not even when the sun shines, but Lee Westwood yesterday showed that he is well on the way to becoming the talismanic Ryder Cup player that his captain Colin Montgomerie once was, leading manfully from the front and at times appearing to carry the hopes of the European team on his sturdy shoulders.
Only a late rally by Jim Furyk and Ricky Fowler, who secured a last-ditch half in the opening round of foursomes despite trailing for 17 holes, denied Westwood and his partner, Martin Kaymer, a perfect two points out of two, after they had earlier finished off Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson 3&2 in the leading match of the rain-interrupted fourballs. Later, Westwood was sent out with a new foursomes partner, in the small but perfectly formed shape of Luke Donald, against the in-form Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker. With two birdies in the first two holes, he and Donald served immediate notice of the home team's determination to overcome a 6-4 points deficit.
It is not easy to make Woods look hapless on a golf course despite his recent travails, but that's what Westwood and Donald did as afternoon in South Wales edged towards dusk. As for the earlier matches with Kaymer, the mighty German who as the current USPGA champion has the major on his CV that Westwood still lacks, was by no means a bystander, but rather like Trevor Francis in his pomp playing for Westwood's beloved Nottingham Forest, Worksop's finest knows the art of crowd-pleasing.
He knows how to please his captain, too. Again to put it in football parlance, Westwood is repeatedly the first player on Montgomerie's teamsheet, despite the fact that he arrived at Celtic Manor having not played tournament golf for seven weeks due to a painful, and worrying, injury to his right calf and ankle. The Open championship at St Andrews – where he finished second to Louis Oosthuizen, albeit by seven shots – was Westwood's last competitive outing, and lesser mortals might not have relished a return to action in quite such a crucible of pressure. But Westwood has that Monty-esque combination of nervelessness and resolve, never more in evidence than when he holed an 8ft putt for par on the par-4 16th in the foursomes match against Furyk and Fowler.
Kaymer, who in truth was something of a weak link over the closing stretch, had raced a birdie putt well past the hole, and with Fowler's ball close, Westwood knew that he had to make the return to retain a one-up advantage. He not only rattled it in, but then strode onto the tee of the par-3 17th and cracked a glorious shot to within 10 feet of the hole, leaving Kaymer a relatively straightforward putt to close out the match which, regrettably for the vast majority of an ever-more vocal crowd, he missed.
On the 18th Kaymer left Westwood with a much longer putt to win the match, but tellingly there was palpable surprise in the gallery when he missed it, and indeed left it short. A long hard stare at an apparently over-eager cameraman offered some kind of explanation.
Whatever the reasons for that putt, it is rare these days that Westwood comes up short of expectations. His has been a remarkably chequered career, featuring an alarmingly precipitous fall in the rankings from fourth in the world in 2000, to 256th just two years later. Yet the 37-year-old now stands as the official world no 3 and even that belies his true stature according to the leading American coach and TV commentator Butch Harmon, who yesterday proclaimed him "the best player in the world right now". Later this month he could quite possibly leapfrog first Phil Mickelson and then Woods to give that assessment some solid statistical back-up.
To rob Tiger of top-dog status after 277 weeks would earn Westwood a nice entry in the record books, but the suspicion is he would much rather play a full part in reclaiming the Ryder Cup for Europe. So far, so good.Reuse content