Westwood ensures England finish year on ultimate high

 

England can boast the world No 1 and the world No 2 at the end of a year in which the Cross of St George has fluttered proudly on each and every professional fairway. With Lee Westwood winning here at the Thailand Golf Championship and with Ian Poulter lifting the Australian Masters title in Perth, this was the most dramatic way to lower the curtain.

Westwood labelled his seven-shot victory over Charl Schwartzel, the Masters champion, as "the best display of my career". So much for a disappointing season because of the continued absence of a major. "I've amazed myself really," said Westwood. "It's been staggering. It's the best I've ever played." This was his fourth win of 2011 and leapfrogged him above Rory McIlroy into second place in the rankings.

"English golf is incredibly strong at the moment, probably never been stronger, and if we were another sport I'm sure there would be more headlines and it would be in the English papers every day," he said. "From a personal perspective I feel my game is better now than it felt when I was world No 1 at Christmas last year. It fills me full of confidence going into next year."

If anything is to swell that ever-expanding chest of his, it is the20-footer for birdie on the 12th at the Amata Spring Country Club which effectively stamped on Schwartzel's fightback. Westwood held an 11-stroke lead after the second round, following a ridiculous 60-64 beginning which broke all sorts of records to take him to 20-under.

But following a nerve-filled Saturday and then a tense start to the fourth round, the South African had seemingly cut the gap to two on the par-four 12th as he watched a 40-footer drop. After missing from 18 inches for birdie on the 11th, as Schwartzel eagled the par-five, Westwood sensed the urgency.

"I knew that was the moment, that was the time I had to start rolling in the long putts," said Westwood. "I haven't been able to do that under pressure for a long, long time, but after that they started going in. That's probably why I feel more confident now than last year; my putting's really starting to improve."

This was Westwood's 37th title of his career. Yesterday's 69 saw him close out at 22-under and so take the ideal boost into the break. "This is a proper golf course and it was a good field," he said. "I was up against the Masters champion on the weekend and came through. It's brilliant to finish the year on a high."

Westwood will holiday in Barbados over New Year, before travelling to Dubai in the second week of January for intense training. First up in 2012 will be the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship, where the world's top four will be attendance as well as Tiger Woods. "It's only five weeks away and I just hope I can play like I have here," said Westwood. "I've been No 1 and while it's always nice to go up the rankings, my sights are really set on the majors next year. It's been a great time for English golf, but it is time we started knocking off a few majors."

Poulter would doubtless say Amen to that. But then, the colourful character from Milton Keynes has always aimed high. Yesterday, he picked up the 15th win of his career with an impressive charge at the Victoria Club in Melbourne. Two behind Geoff Ogilvy, the former US Open champion, Poulter took just one hole to bridge the gap when firing in a spectacular five-wood off the tee to 15 feet.

With Ogilvy only parring, Poulter was on level terms and so he used the momentum to construct a lead he was never to forsake with two more birdies on the front nine. A commendable 67 in tough conditions saw him eventually prevailing by three shots from Marcus Fraser, the local hero.

"It was flawless, the whole day. I was very happy how I approached every shot and hit my targets," said Poulter, who climbed back into the world's top 20, making it seven UK golfers in that elite group. "I've been chilled all week and today was a day for patience."

Luke Donald, the world No 1, was certainly impressed. "If you ask Ian, he won't say he had his greatest year this year," he said. "But Ian has a very strong mind, even when his golf isn't quite on, he is able to grind out a score and I think he would be the first to tell you that he has done very well this week."

Donald could only finish on four-under, 11 behind Poulter, for a rare appearance outside the top 10. "It's a little bit disappointing to finish like that, but I will reflect on what has been an amazing year for me." For Donald and England both.

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