Tony Jacklin, speaking in Monday's Independent, wondered if anyone could say for sure that Lee Westwood would win a major after his agonising failure at last month's Open. Well, if the old champion was here yesterday, at the scene of his own 1970 US Open glory, he would have heard his countryman's case being widely tipped for some immediate redemption.
Of course, most of the experts were lining up to extol the chances of one Tiger Woods in this, the 91st USPGA Championship; and with two victories in the last two weeks the likelihood of the world No 1 avoiding his first blank major year since 2004 is, indeed, intoxicating. But when it comes to looking elsewhere then Westwood's name obviously sticks out. To Colin Montgomerie, in particular.
"He's a definite contender this week," said the Scot, who as Ryder Cup captain has been handed a place in the season's last major. "No, he hasn't won a tournament for two years but Lee has undoubtedly played the best golf in the world of those who have not won. You have to be fortunate some times and I think he just hasn't had that luck on his side. Maybe if he had won in the past couple of months there would have been a different result at Turnberry. Who knows? But Lee definitely played the best golf at the Open."
The tale of how Westwood three-putted the 18th on the Ailsa Course to miss the play-off by one has long since entered British golfing folklore. Montgomerie watched the drama unfold at home in Perthshire and knew what his friend and former Ryder Cup partner would be going through. "I called Lee immediately afterwards," said Montgomerie, who famously has five major runner-up placings on his CV. "I have been in that position myself a few times. It's very difficult to take. I said to him, 'Come on, you played the best golf, you can do this'. It was essentially a gee-up call to a mate, but yeah, I drew on my personal experiences as well. I never managed to get over this major hurdle but I really do believe Lee will. He will achieve what I never was able to."
Why does Monty believe this? "Lee has an asset I never had – extra length," he said. "He is fitter than he ever was before, he is 30 yards longer than he ever was before.
"I'm glad to see that he had a good finish in Akron last week with a last-round 65. I just saw him in the locker room and he's full of confidence. I'd love him to do it. And he can."
It would certainly assist Montgomerie's European cause if he did. Yet the old boy was not just crossing his fingers from a Celtic Manor perspective. The British drought in the season's final major is a damned curse which every Briton in the field would like to see redressed. While recognising the early victories of the British-born American citizens, Jim Barnes and Jock Hutchison, nobody representing the Union Flag has lifted the Wanamaker Trophy. Montgomerie, himself, came closest in 1995 when beaten in a play-off by Australia's Steve Elkington. Since then, Britain has not even boasted a contender, certainly not in the final holes. If their time must be nigh, then so too, his camp maintains, is Westwood's time. "He was devastated on that Sunday night at Turnberry," revealed his manager, Chubby Chandler. "I've never seen him like that. Head pressed in hands. The only ones who could talk to him were his kids. Because dad's dad, isn't he? They don't care whether he wins or not. Monday he was pig-sick but by Tuesday he was coming round and I've spent a lot of time with him the past fortnight making sure he stays positive. I do believe he's so close to winning one now. I happen to think it will be this week."
There are a number of reasons for believing that these are not just the words of an optimistic agent. As Montgomerie said, Westwood's length will be vital around this 7,674-yard examination. Then there is his peerless accuracy off the tee.
On Monday, he was playing with Darren Clarke here when he pulled out a new driver. "Lee, what the hell are you doing with a new driver?" said the Ulsterman. "You're the best driver in the world. Put it away." Westwood did as his friend said and his confidence only grew. A few holes later, Rory McIlroy, who was playing against Clarke and Westwood with another Ulsterman, Graeme McDowell, started giving it out to his opponents.
"Not bad for England's No 2," he would say after Westwood blasted a drive. "Not bad for Northern Ireland's No 3," after Clarke had done likewise. Westwood rose to the bait.
"Listen Rory," he said. "In the Ryder Cup, we've beaten the world's No 1 not once, but three times. Believe it, we're not worried about Northern Ireland's No 1 and 2."
This come-back surely said volumes about the manner in which Westwood has bounced back from Turnberry. "You know, just missing out by a shot at last year's US Open and then again at the Open a few weeks ago has given me confidence, but it's not just about that," said the 36-year-old yesterday. "It's about the fact that my game has improved a lot and especially my short game. I'm continually proving to myself that I'm good enough to win a major. It's just a case of repeating the process and getting into contention over and over again. And then eventually winning one."
These were clearly not the statements of a broken man. Instead Westwood seems more certain than ever of his major destiny. Furthermore, he has convinced himself of this and unlike the majority of his colleagues, has not been desperate enough to employ a mind doctor to tell him how great he is. "I've never felt like I've needed one," he said. "I've always felt quite mentally stable. No, look at them all [the sports psychologists]. They all look a bit odd to me, like they're the ones who need to see somebody." With that he went off laughing. All the way to that elusive first major? It would be time. For Westwood and his country.
Hard drivers: Three big hitters to challenge Woods and Westwood
*Padraig Harrington (Ire)
Bounced back to form with runner-up finish in Akron last week and surprised everyone by out-driving Woods on number of occasions. Should mount big title defence.
*J B Holmes (US)
The unreconstructed Kentuckian gives it one almighty heave-ho. Not the greatest putter but has his weeks. If his radar is working this could be one of them.
*Alvaro Quiros (Sp)
Played with Montgomerie in practice and out-drove him by 70 yards on the third whilst playing the first five in six under. Big chance for the event's biggest hitter.
*Selected Tee off times (BST)
Starting at hole 1:
13.35 Oliver Wilson (Eng)
13.45 John Daly (US)
13.55 Colin Montgomerie (Sco)
18.45 Ross Fisher (Eng)
18.55 Paul Casey (Eng)
19.05 Jim Furyk (US), Rory McIlroy (NI), Martin Kaymer (Ger)
19.15 Henrik Stenson (Swe)
19.25 Sergio Garcia (Sp)
19.35 Justin Rose (Eng)
19.45 Harrington, Tiger Woods (US)
19.55 Lee Westwood (Eng), Quiros
Starting at hole 10:
13.35 Darren Clarke (NI)
13.55 Miguel Angel Jimenez (Sp), Geoff Ogilvy (Aus)
14.05 Vijay Singh (Fiji)
14.15 Ernie Els (SA), Ian Poulter (Eng)
14.25 Stewart Cink (US)
14.35 Phil Mickelson (US)
14.45 Retief Goosen (SA)
14.55 Luke Donald (Eng)
*TV times: Sky Sports 1, HD1: 19.00-01.00Reuse content