The more birdie putts Lee Westwood made yesterday, the more he began to believe he has finally fixed the biggest weakness in his game. Westwood made 11 birdies, many on long putts, to shoot a 61 and grab a share of the lead with Louis Oosthuizen after the third round of the WGC-HSBC Champions.
Oosthuizen, meanwhile, struggled on the greens, losing the five-stroke lead he held at the start of the weekend when shooting a two-under 70. Westwood and Oosthuizen are tied at 18 under before today's round, three shots ahead of Phil Mickelson, who made seven birdies in his 66.
Ernie Els briefly surged into a share of the lead on the back nine before finding water on the tricky 15th hole and taking a double bogey. He shot a 69 to drop to fourth.
Westwood, a former world No 1, has long been considered one of the most consistent golfers in the game, yet has never won a major, finishing runner-up at the Masters and The Open in 2010.
He has also played in more World Golf Championship events than any other golfer (41), but his best result is second place on three occasions, most recently at the HSBC Champions in 2010.
"It does surprise me that I've played more than anyone else. I didn't realise I was that old," the 39-year-old said. "I know I've played a lot. I've never won one."
It was the second time in three weeks that Westwood had shot a 61 – he had also achieved the score to beat Charl Schwartzel in the semi-finals of the World Golf Final exhibition in Turkey in mid-October.
But Westwood's total yesterday was by no means the low round of the day. That honour went to the American Brandt Snedeker, who finished with a 60, a new course record.
Starting back in 12th in China yesterday, Westwood began with three birdies on the first three holes, then birdied the fifth and seventh holes and sunk a 10-foot putt for another birdie on the 573-yard par-five ninth to make the turn at 13 under, four strokes back.
The Englishman kept up the pressure on the back nine, closing his round with four more birdies to catch Oosthuizen and Els.
After his third-place finish at the Masters this year, Westwood admitted that his putting was "costing me tournaments". However, the many hours of hard work he has put into that aspect of his game over the past couple of months is starting to show dividends.
"I've struggled on the greens. That's been widely and comprehensively reported," he said. "But today I felt really confident on the greens and was looking at 20-footers thinking, 'Yeah, I'm going to make this one.'"
After two rounds of nearly flawless golf, Oosthuizen was five strokes up on the field and appeared to be in complete control going into the weekend.
But cracks began to appear in his putting game early yesterday. After making a nice chip shot from the bunker on the third hole, Oosthuizen missed a routine five-footer for birdie, then three-putted on the par-three fifth hole for bogey – only his second of the tournament – and allowed another birdie chance to slip away on the sixth when his 25-foot putt stopped inches short.
Oosthuizen then narrowly missed two more birdie putts within 10 feet on the eighth and ninth holes, and was forced to settle for par on both occasions.
Els's solid round came undone on the 580-yard, par-five 15th hole, when he plunged his second shot into the water. He managed to recover from that setback with his next shot, but then missed an easy five-footer on the green. The South African had been bogey-free up to that point in the tournament.