Lee Westwood stood on the first tee at Augusta last Monday, peered across what he calls "a vast expanse of greenness" and whispered to himself: "Very tranquil." At that moment, he could have tried to imagine what the scene would be like in a week's time – and failed miserably. The Tiger Woods Circus was not even the faintest rumble in the distance, never mind an endless racket of hype careering its way into town.
Actually, Woods was there that day and Westwood stopped by for a chat. "I'm not going to tell you what we talked about as it was a private conversation," he said. It is fair to assume, however, that the Englishman did not press Woods with the same query as the one he relayed to a journalist later in the week. "How did you ever find the time to become the best player in the world?" said Westwood, when asked what question he would pose Woods at tomorrow's press conference.
More likely Westwood said to Woods just what he has been saying to everyone else since his two-day reconnaissance – "Why haven't I done this before?" In the 13 years he has been playing The Masters, this was the first time Westwood had visited Augusta before Masters week.
He plainly believes that the experience will be as rewarding as it was peaceful. "I've finally realised what the benefits are of playing the course when there's not hordes and hordes of people around," he said. "Everything's not going 120mph. You can do your work a lot more calmly and take a lot more in. It's made me feel more comfortable going in there than I ever have."
Westwood never did head down Magnolia Lane in a flap, a panic or even a great rush. "That's not my style," he said. "I'm the type of person who goes with the flow. Maybe 10 years ago, when I won the Order of Merit and got to fourth in the world, other people's expectations made me get a little bit carried away. This time around, when I've again won the Order of Merit and got to fourth in the world, I'm a bit more experienced and don't really give a monkey's what anybody thinks."
There is at least one man who commands Westwood's attention and can break through that wonderfully assured mixture of sarcasm and confidence. Since linking up last May with Billy Foster, formerly caddie to Seve Ballesteros and Darren Clarke, Westwood has reconquered the world's top five.
"Billy's helped me focus a lot better, almost become a little bit more professional," explained Westwood. "We sat down beforehand and looked at places where I could improve and he said, 'Look, these are your results and you're kidding yourself a little bit in certain areas'. He was the one who suggested going back to Pete Cowen to work on the short game. He said my bunker game was poor at best. I get up and down out of the traps a lot more regularly now. It all snowballs and leads to lower scoring."
Chris Wood, his young countryman, found that out to his cost at Augusta. The Masters rookie must have fancied his chances when his opponent began with a couple of bogeys. But then, under Foster's guidance, Westwood proceeded to confirm that on the National course, experience is key. "I made eagles on eight and 12 and about five other birdies so I took Chris's money off him," said Westwood.
"Billy will be a big help there. It's funny, at the big events I realise his value even more. He saw shots differently to how I have played Augusta in the past. Examples would be 12, the second shot into 11, not necessarily going for the green on 13 even if you've hit the fairway. I think I have always been a bit too aggressive whereas he takes a bit more of a cautious view."
If only Foster had been in his corner in 1999. Standing on the 10th tee on the Sunday, he was tied for the lead. His playing partner that afternoon just happened to be a misfiring Woods, who probably thought he was helping when urging Westwood to "bring it on home". Instead, the then 25-year-old almost brought it all up, as his knees turned to jelly and his stomach to mush.
"That was the first time I had been in that situation and it came as a bit of a shock," he said. "I didn't handle it as well as I would have liked. I would handle it better now. I can't say whether I would win or not – I've learned that over the last couple of majors – but I would certainly be prepared in that situation.
"It's that comfort and knowing what to do and knowing when to push, knowing when to back off and knowing when to let everybody else make the mistakes."
The experiences of Torrey Pines in 2008 and Turnberry in 2009 might have crushed another golfer. Westwood missed the play-off by a shot on both occasions and, at last year's Open particularly, headed home to wallow in the what-might-have-beens. But then he picked himself up to produce one of the most emphatic performances in European Tour history at the Race To Dubai finale. Yes, he is prepared to contemplate a career which finishes without a major. But it is hardly eating Westwood up.
"I would feel like there would be something missing, sure," he said. "But, to be honest, I doubt I would worry about it for too long. Still, I've got a fair crack at a few yet. I'm only 36. I'm in my prime. Players last longer nowadays. It is probably because we look after ourselves now and we have the knowledge of what areas of our body to work on and to keep strong.
"I'm definitely playing the best golf of my career, and I think if you look at the results, it's the most consistent I have played. I may not be winning as much as I did back in 1998, 1999, 2000, but I'm certainly giving myself a lot of opportunities to do so."
Back at the turn of the century, Westwood was playing the Andy Murray role for English golf. He recalled: "I think in 2000 it was [Nick] Faldo who pointed out that I was the only Englishman in the top 100. I was No 4 back then. Many people were asked where is the next crop of English golfers going to come from. And a decade on we have, what, three of us in the top 10. We are going there mob-handed."
In truth, Westwood is not greatly concerned with the compatriots alongside him, or with any perceived collective mission to redress a major imbalance which traces back to Faldo at Augusta in 1996. In his own words he is "older and greyer" and recognises that it is every man for himself out there. Perhaps that is why he can think about the chances of being paired with Woods on Thursday and merely shrug his shoulders.
"Wouldn't bother me at all," he said. "In fact, I'd love to be drawn with him. I've come out of it pretty well when I've played with him, especially recently. He's good to play with and I get on with him pretty well. I don't think what's going on with him will affect the rest of us at all. The only effect will be on him. I'll be in my own little world." With its vast expanse of greenness. And its setting so tranquil.Reuse content