Westwood's sole driver is his major motivation

'We get paid too much – compared to teachers and nurses,' says European Tour's record earner

While the achievements of Luke Donald, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy will rightly play a big role in this week's BBC Sports Personality of the Year, there is another Englishman who should not be forgotten. Lee Westwood was huge-odds-on to win his fourth title of the year this season and in terms of passing financial milestones he has left that trio trailing.

But then, they are not the only ones. Last Sunday, the 38-year-old became not only the leading career money-earner on the European Tour (leapfrogging Ernie Els), but he also became the first Briton to break through the £25m mark in on-course earnings. As Westwood said: "Not bad for a lad from Worksop."

From that down-to-earth town in Nottinghamshire, Westwood has risen to become one of Britain's highest-earning sportsmen. With his record in the majors recently (six top threes in the last four seasons) he understandably believes there is plenty of the journey still to travel, but he is prepared to take a pit-stop to reflect on where he started.

"I thought I'd had a good first year when I finished 45th on the Order of Merit and won £125,000," he said, thinking back to 1994. "I had a good week the first week, when I won about £2,500 in Madeira. After that I bought a car I couldn't really afford – a Vauxhall Calibra, silver. I was in my early twenties and I think the insurance was more than the car itself."

The Vauxhall has since gone, but a few dents remain. He may have been the world No 1, and he will return to world No 2 with a top-two placing here at the Amata Spring Country Club today, but until he wins a major, the doubters will always question his standing. "I'm sometimes amazed when I get criticised," he said. "I look back at my career and I think I'm an over-achiever. I've always worked fairly hard. I've won 36 tournaments in five continents."

One of the charges he and his fellow multi-millionaire colleagues often face, however, does not concern the contents of his trophy cabinet, but instead his bank account. "We play for a staggering amount of money, no doubt about it and I've always stressed we are very very fortunate," he said. "I think we are paid too much money – compared to police and teachers and nurses. But then compare it to footballers. I think the only thing you can probably justify it by is that when golfers have a bad day, we don't get paid anything, but when we have a great day we get paid a lot. It's part of the pressure involved. There isn't a wage as such."

Westwood claims not to be motivated by money and certainly not the career-earnings charts. "When you first come out on tour, you play for the money because you need a certain amount to keep your card," he said. "But gradually as you win more, get exemptions and things like that, you get more confidence in your ability and you turn up to tournaments with the mindset of trying to win the trophy... you know the money's just going to come along with it."

Yet in golf it is not the worst barometer of success. For as Westwood pointed out, much depends on how much a golfer wins for what he can enter or qualify (eg Ryder Cups). Where putts for second place are sometimes worth hundreds of thousands it is too glib to say all that matters is winning. "Careers are defined by major championships. I get constantly asked about it so they must," he said. "And I'd love to win a major; it's the reason why I keep practising and driving myself on. But the security of my family, my kids means more to me than that. I wouldn't sacrifice all I had for a major, no."

Yet Westwood is prepared to sacrifice plenty as he has proved here this week. While many of his competitors have been enjoying the charms of Bangkok, he has stayed on the mineral water and weights. Such discipline helped him forge a 11-shot halfway lead at 20-under, but yesterday Charl Schwartzel dared to eat into this outrageous advantage. Indeed, by the time they teed up today there was but four shots separating them following Schwartzel's 66 to Westwood's 73. Westwood took it all in that pragmatic way of his. "After a 60 and 64, you have to be a bit realistic unfortunately," said Westwood. "A lot of people are going to think you're going to shoot 60, 62 and 64 every day but I'm afraid golf is not like that. A four-shot lead into the last round is a good position to be in. I'd have taken it on Thursday morning, that's for sure."