A decade ago, when Lee Westwood was one of the most promising wunderkinds of European golf, a major championship title seemed far more probable than possible. For a while yesterday it again looked like a probability. This was Westwood's 15th Open, and his two best previous finishes – tied fourth in 2004 and 10th in 1997 – had both come up the road in Troon. He likes this stretch of coast.
Until the seventh hole yesterday, however, Westwood had never led a major championship all on his own, but the 36-year-old is experienced enough to know that the only worthwhile time to hold the outright lead in a major is when you're walking off the 18th green with nobody able to catch up. He couldn't quite manage it here, to the palpable disappointment of a crowd who are still wondering where the next British winner of the Open is coming from. For an hour or two it looked like Worksop might be the prosaic answer.
The small Nottinghamshire town is the home not just of Westwood but also of the Oxo cube, and early in the final round it appeared as though his chances might be crumbling like one of the said cubes, although not through any lapses of his own. His playing partner, Ross Fisher, started superbly, with birdies on the first two holes to take him into a two-stroke lead over the briefly faltering Tom Watson, bringing up the rear of the field with the little-known Tasmanian Mathew Goggin. If there was to be a British winner of the Claret Jug for the first time since Paul Lawrie in 1999, it looked like Fisher. You could almost hear the headline writers wondering whether "The Fisher King" would fit across Monday's back pages in 48-point type?
But the vicissitudes of this game are rarely as dramatic as on the last day of the Open, especially when there is a stiff breeze whipping up the waves in the Firth of Clyde. Speaking of breaking waters, goodness knows what effect Fisher's heroics were having on his heavily pregnant wife, Jo, back home. The internet betting exchanges fleetingly installed him as 6-4 favourite but his stay at the top of the leaderboard didn't last. On the short 4th he thumped his tee shot so far right of the green that it landed where The Guardian's photographer had dumped his Nikon D3, roughly £8,000 worth of kit, including lenses.
The highly engaging Fisher would doubtless have been only too happy to offer recompense out of the winner's cheque, but no damage was done except to his card. He got away with a bogey, and left the green still in the lead, but there was carnage waiting ahead. Another errant tee shot left the Englishman's ball in deep rough to the right of the fairway, and he was able only to hoik it forward a yard or two, into even deeper stuff. He then tugged his attempted recovery into an unplayable lie in the rough on the other side of the fairway, and was forced to take a penalty drop. It was the sort of disaster seen in every hacker's four-ball on a Sunday afternoon, but rarely from the bloke leading the Open. Still there is a reason why the fifth hole is called Fin Me Oot, and poor Fisher was indeed foond oot. An eight was the horrible result of his tribulations, a quadruple bogey from which he never really recovered.
Westwood too had his difficulties on the fifth, making bogey, but on the next hole, the challenging par-3 sixth, he had a putt just inside Fisher's and studied the younger man's line to great effect, curling his putt in for a wonderful and timely birdie. Suddenly Westwood was leading the Open with Watson and, making a charge up ahead, 21-year-old Chris Wood. It was almost evocative of one of the golden eras of West Indian cricket, this stirring sporting tale of three Ws: the old-timer Watson, the young buck Wood and the pugnacious Westwood.
But at the long seventh, Westwood left his fellow Ws in his wake, firmly rolling in an eagle putt to a mighty roar from a sun-kissed and windblown crowd enraptured by one of the Open's classic final afternoons. At the 10th, he handed Lady Turnberry, as the irrepressibly romantic Watson likes to refer to these marvellous links, a shot back. In trouble off the tee, he smashed his second out of the rough almost on to the green, but then squirted his chip too far and missed a triple-breaking putt for par. He then parred the next three holes before slipping up again on the par-3 15th, when, the adrenaline coursing, he smacked a seven-iron through the green and into a bunker. Another shot dropped. And then another, on the 16th, where a par putt after a circumspect chip slid agonisingly by.
Westwood's adventures made nigh-on unbearable viewing for those rooting for a British winner – which was by no means all of the gallery, not with the perennial favourite Watson so tenaciously hanging on to the lead. But at the 17th he gave his supporters renewed hope, a fantastic second shot smashed out of the rough leaving him with a makeable eagle putt. He missed it by a whisker, but with a tap-in birdie regained a share of the lead. Back in 1999, Westwood entered the last nine holes of the US Masters in contention for the green jacket, and he admits now that he was so nervous he almost threw up. Ten years can do great things for a fellow's sang-froid. He looked unperturbable yesterday, and the splendid swing, back under the tutelage of his old coach Pete Cowen, held up to the stiffest of examinations.
Westwood's tee-shot at the 18th rolled into the left-hand fairway bunker, and with Watson now a shot ahead, it looked as though his challenge might be over. But from the sand he conjured one of the finest shots of the week, to make the putting surface. Alas, he charged a long putt well past and missed the return. Three bogeys in the last four holes for a 71, one under par, ensured that the Claret Jug would remain just out of reach.