Expect the unexpected. That was Lee Westwood's message for the climax of the 75th Masters. And he should know. With 27 holes to play last year, he was cruising around here, taking a five-shot lead into Amen Corner. Then crash, bang, wallop. Phil Mickelson exploded into action with an eagle at the 13th, eagle at the 14th and birdie at the 15th. Westwood's lead was gone in a heartbeat. But the lesson he learned is that there is no lead that can't be pegged back at The Masters – especially on Sunday, when pulses are racing, the roars are echoing through the pines, and the brains of rookies and veterans alike can be turned to scrambled eggs.
Westwood knows the first three rounds are nothing more than a soundcheck. The full-on rock 'n' roll ride doesn't kick off until the back nine on Sunday. The secret is to hang on in there. "Five shots is not that much," Westwood said. "I know better than anybody how quickly a five-shot lead can evaporate out there after Saturday last year, going down 11 with a five-shot lead and about 45 minutes later being a shot behind."
Will an experienced campaigner win the day? Or is this the time for youthful exuberance to make a statement that this truly is the end of the Woods era? "Well, experience counts for a lot around here," said the 37-year-old Westwood. "This is my 12th Masters, and only over the last three or four years have I startedto get the hang of it. But yeah, there are a lot of young players up there, but that's just golf at the moment."
The twentysomethings Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Jason Day all entered the weekend in uncharted territory. Never before have they had their game and mental toughness scrutinised under such an intense spotlight. Can one of them prove that they really are not afraid of Woods? Or will they freeze? Westwood has been laying the seeds of doubt.
"It's more than just Tiger trying to win. There are other guys on the leaderboard who can try and intimidate," Westwood said. Is Rory ready? "We'll find out," he said deadpan. Gauntlet duly thrown down.
Westwood was relaxed and sounding confident. But he is 0 and 51 in the majors, as American statisticians like to say. Questions will be asked of Westwood, too. He's been missing a few short putts and his chipping has long been his Achilles' heel. "You try not to let the frustration on the greens affect and infiltrate your long game," Westwood said. "Pete [Cowen, his coach] said to me, 'You can't let the fact that you're missing a few putts worry you. You're one of the few people capable of winning based on long game alone.'"
All the pressure is on the leader. Westwood remembers being out in front for the first time in 1999. "I felt sick," he said. It's much less stressful hunting than being hunted. "I keep telling myself to be patient," he said. "You're nervous, yeah, for sure," he admitted. "Nothing wrong with nerves. It's how you deal with them. I shot 13 under par last year and it would have won 17 of the previous 21 Masters. So who is to say 15 under would win this time? Wouldn't have won last year. A lot of things can happen around that back nine."