Westwood casts glance westward

NEW FACES FOR '97: An invitation to this year's US Masters will help to put Worksop firmly on the golfing map of the world.
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The Independent Online
Christmas arrived two days early for Lee Westwood. Ever since finishing sixth on the European Order of Merit, Westwood had been hoping for an invitation to the US Masters.

The Augusta National authorities, who have no set criteria for inviting non-Americans, have not always been so quick to recognise an emerging talent from overseas. It is safe to say that there will be more than a few of the green-jacketed brigade who will be asking "Where?", when the 23-year-old is announced on the first tee from "Worksop, England".

But Westwood's CV has gone before him and came with the endorsement of the European tour executive director, Ken Schofield. In 1996 Westwood rose from 258th to 64th in the Sony world rankings and shot up 69 places on the European money list. His maiden title came in a play-off at the Scandinavian Masters and he followed it up by outlasting Costantino Rocca, the current PGA champion, and Jeff Sluman, the 1988 US PGA winner, in a four-hole play-off at the Visa Taiheiyo Masters in Japan.

"I was screening the post for an Augusta postmark," Westwood's manager, Andrew Chandler, said. In fact, the invitation slipped through and was sent on to the player's home, arriving on the Monday before Christmas. It meant that another set of invitations, for Westwood's wedding to Andrew Coltart's sister, Laurae, which was due for the second Saturday in April, will not be sent out until the end of the year.

"He has never even been to America, let alone played golf there," added Chandler, who has been busy trying to get his client into a couple of tournaments that precede the Masters. Westwood, the son of a schoolteacher, has been busy on the pool table in the house he has moved into with Laurae thanks to his pounds 436,693 season. "The pool table arrived the same day as the Masters invitation," Chandler said. "It was hard to tell which he was more pleased about. The Masters is three months away, he could play pool immediately."

"It would have been disappointing not to get into the Masters after the year I had," Westwood said. "Winning in Japan proved I could play outside Europe as well as at home. I am really looking forward to it," he added, "especially with all this snow on the ground. I just want to be anywhere but here."

Westwood does not like to be idle long. Last year he played 37 times around the world, a heavy schedule by any journeyman's standards. "I'll probably go easy on myself and cut it down to 35 this year," Westwood said. "I enjoy playing, and as soon as I don't I stop."

His Scandinavian win came on his 17th week on tour. At the half-way point, he phoned Chandler to say he had hit the wall. Chandler replied: "Well, make sure you make this weekend count." The manager adds: "Lee is a good listener, even if it does not look like it has gone in at the time. He knows he needs to cut down his schedule but he is not about to become a prima donna and only play 20 times."

Before starting the season in Australia at the end of the month, Westwood and some Tour colleagues will practice in Spain with the Lindrick pro, Peter Cowen. Westwood turned to Cowen after missing five of his first 10 cuts of last season and a fresh pair of eyes - Westwood had been with the same coach for seven years - produced a fresh impetus. Cowen got Westwood hitting the ball higher and playing more aggressively.

The Spanish trip will include a visit to Valderrama, the venue for September's Ryder Cup. Those are two words Westwood, currently 11th on the qualifying table, knows he is going to hear a lot of this year.

"Yes, I am, but I'm trying to set my sights on just getting in the Ryder Cup team. I'm hoping to win two tournaments and that will lead to getting into the team.

"There is a lot of hype. It is one week and it is eight months away but people are already getting excited. Already I've read in one of the papers that we are not going to have a chance. You work all year and it makes you wonder why you bother if they are slagging us off already. It spurs you on, though."

This year's European team should be one that features a few new names and in Westwood, Coltart, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley, Chandler's ISM management stable could be well represented at Valderrama. "They are good friends but there is a strong rivalry among them as well," Chandler said. "Lee is fearless. He likes a big challenge. He still has a sense of adventure about him and he has some good friends in Worksop who keep his feet on the ground."

Levitation may have been a problem after both Tom Watson and the Japanese legend Jumbo Ozaki made complimentary remarks after playing with Westwood. "It is always nice to have the really good players saying nice things about you. It gives you a lot of confidence. You must be doing things right. Last year was fantastic and if this year is half as good, it will be a great year."