Westwood has No 1 dream

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The Independent Online

The Houston Open has turned into so much more than a Masters prep event for Lee Westwood. Not only has his first American title for a dozen years moved tantalisingly into focus but so too has the tag of world No 2. Prevail here tomorrow and there is a fair chance the Englishman could be teeing it up at Augusta rated as the player most likely to deny Tiger Woods his comeback victory.

Not that Westwood would be intent on stopping there. It might mean plenty in the UK that no British golfer has been so high in the rankings since Colin Montgomerie way back in 1996, but the 36-year-old's newly sharpened ambition would not allow him to settle for second best. "It would be a fantastic achievement and a great boost going into next week," said the current world No 4, after a 68 moved him into halfway contention on seven-under. "But who knows, even No 1 could be up for grabs this year. After all, there's never been as big an opportunity. None of us know what Tiger will be like when he returns."

Certainly, it is hard to see much stopping Westwood here, particularly if he is correct in gauging his current form. "My game feels as strong as it did in the Race To Dubai last year," he said. Westwood's performance in Dubai last November just happened to be the finest of his career so far and one of the best in the history of the European Tour. Little wonder, therefore, that he is so confident about next week's challenge for a first major. He has been inspired by a two-day trip to Augusta at the beginning of the week and is plainly peaking right on cue.

"After the USPGA last year I said my focus would be on playing well by the time the Masters came around and I meant it," he said.

Westwood's mood is in direct contrast to the player he beat to the Order of Merit four months ago. With a 73 yesterday to go with his first-round 74, Rory McIlroy missed the cut, so completing a miserable Masters preparation. For the moment the boy wonder is at a loss as he wonders what to do.

Despite returning to Belfast to regroup last month, the spark which defines McIlroy still is not back. He says his back complaint is not the problem, but it is worrying for a 20- year-old to have two scans in as many months. McIlroy arrived saying "it's still not 100 per cent but things are moving in the right direction". We can only pray his golf ball soon follows suit.