When it comes to realising his long-held ambition of becoming the world No 1, the "if" no longer has to be a question for Lee Westwood; only the "when" and "how" remains. With a 66 which defied not only the pain in his calf but also the conditions here on the feared Angus links, the Englishman gave himself a chance today of usurping Tiger Woods in, as he puts it, "the right way".
And what a way this would be to end a week which began with those spectacular Ryder Cup scenes at Celtic Manor. Westwood may now be back in the individual arena and he may have a Ryder Cup partner in Martin Kaymer blocking his path to the second-place position he needs, but at least one of his team-mates will be spurring him on.
"I would love him to do it," said Graeme McDowell, the Europe match-winner who, just two back from Westwood on six under, still has his own chances in this Dunhill Links finale. "It would cap what's been a great year for European golf. I fully believe Lee is the best playerin the world form-wise and if it wasn't for the injury I truly believe he would be No 1 already. It's been a dominating year for us and this would really underscore it."
For his part, Westwood was remaining as laid-back as usual, despite his seven-birdie magnificence. He did say, "Without a doubt getting to No 1 would be the greatest thing I've ever done," and it is understood the achievement would be reflected in the many millions he would earn in sponsorship bonuses. But he was not about to let himself be carried away on the possibilities. "There's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but I have to travel the full length of the rainbow and that would mean playing well in the Dunhill Links," he said.
As Kaymer and Alvaro Quiros are three clear of him in second on 11 under – with the young Yorkshireman, John Parry, a further two shots ahead on 13 under – the task remains on the daunting side of sizeable. Particularly as the ruptured muscle which kept him sidelined for seven weeks before the Ryder Cup continues to ache. "It starts after nine holes," he said, explaining how it has stopped him working on his game. "It is frustrating." Yet it would be even more so if the vagaries of the rankings were not promising top-dog status anyway.
If the 37-year-old pulls out of this week's Portugal Masters then he will be assured of being crowned No 1 on 31 October, so long as Woods, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker stick to their schedule and ignore the minor US events taking place. It would not be the glorious ascent to the summit Westwood would have imagined, but he would not feel he had any other choice as he concentrates on enabling the full recovery he believes will be necessary for a shot at next year's Masters. For this reason he will probably skip the Algarve and at least three more weeks thereafter. "I'm more or less set on not playing in Portugal and getting it [the calf] right," he confessed.
Would that lead to whispers of"No 1 by default"? It shouldn't. For as McDowell claimed, there has been no more consistent or impressive golfer in the past two seasons. It wouldn'tbother Westwood personally, but it would be a shame if anything or anyone demeans the feat of him becoming the first British No 1 since Nick Faldo in 1994 and just the second in the 25-year history of the rankings.
Forget the Ryder Cup and Europe winning at home, as they were expected to, this would be a milestone for this so-called golden generation. Furthermore the narrative of the Westwood tale would only make it that bit more special. After a stunning start to his career, which saw him win the Order of Merit and climb to worldNo 4, he all but disappeared eight years ago, falling out of the top 250.
"When you're down there you don't say, 'I want to get back and be even better than I was'," he said. "You'll just about take anything. So my goal was to get back into the top 100 and then the top 50. To get back to No 4 was brilliant and to carry on and go toNo 1 would show what I've got in my heart, more than anything else."
Fife this past few days has witnessed a microcosm of this competitivespirit, leading up to this critical final 18 holes at the Old Course, St Andrews. Fatigue will be a factor, not only for Westwood but Kaymer and the other five Ryder Cup heroes who made the three-round cut unique to this pro-am. In fact, of those Celtic warriors only the Molinaris and Peter Hanson crawled away. Their captain, Colin Montgomerie, did make it through on one under as he began a new chapter of his career in commendable style. For Westwood a far weightier volume awaits. However it is penned.