Lee Westwood is the latest to be saddled with the tag that every golfer dreads. Next year he will turn forty and time is running out if he is to shed his unwanted sobriquet. The best player never to have won a major heads to Royal Lytham for this week’s Open Championship desperate to rectify this anomaly. Some experts argue that his unreliable short game leaves him condemned to remain the nearly man, but far from creaking under the weight of internal pressure and external goodwill, Worksop’s finest appears more relaxed and comfortable with his game than ever. If the Claret Jug finds itself in his hands come Sunday evening, there could surely be no more celebrated winner.
The wild conditions are forecast to relent over the weekend so we can hopefully look forward to a fair test of ability on the Lancashire links. Tiger Woods has already expressed concern over the length of the rough and the course will certainly punish those who are wayward off the tee. That is as it should be. So many artificial designs are excessively lenient where erratic driving is concerned. Hacking out of the long grass now and again might just reconnect some of these multi-millionaires with their more humble origins. Hitting the fairways, and thus avoiding the detour into the thickest of the undergrowth, will convey a distinct advantage, and this is where Westwood excels. If success were judged purely by finding greens in regulation, he would doubtlessly have reached his zenith by now. His smooth, almost languid, swing allows for an accuracy which is the envy of his peers. This is a huge asset for Lytham’s bunkers are plentiful and demanding, yet it is neither the sand nor the vegetation which is seen as the greatest obstacle to Westwood’s chances. His chipping and putting is the susceptible department, or so his critics would proclaim.
The evidence for his alleged weakness once approaching the flag is thin. He has, after all, previously spent almost half a year as the number one ranked player; there are 39 senior tour titles and a coveted Ryder Cup record in his account. You don’t achieve such bounty without a fairly solid touch on the greens. The man himself bristles at the suggestion of a fatal flaw, but doubts persist when expectations are at their greatest. In this year’s Masters at Augusta he took eight more putts overall than the eventual Green Jacket Bubba Watson, and a staggering twenty one more than Phil Mickelson, with whom he tied for third. At the Turnberry Open three years ago he three-putted the final green when a par would have earned a play-off with Tom Watson and Stewart Cink. Seven of his last seventeen majors have yielded top three finishes. It is admirably steady but the margins are so fine you have to wonder whether even the slightest frailty makes the crucial difference.
Such agonising fractions would knaw at a less robust psyche. But Westwood has stared down the abyss, slipping out of the world’s top two hundred in 2003 as his form and belief deserted him. That he found the strength and courage to rebuild his game with acclaimed guru David Leadbetter and climb back to the very summit, is demonstrative of his drive and application, a facet which had once been doubted publicly by no less a figure than Gary Player among others. Part of the revival was an acknowledgement that, far from being a sedentary pursuit, golf at the highest level required fitness and conditioning. The mental element is easier if the body is humming the same tune. The new Westwood not only has the game to challenge the best but also a calmness and understanding of his gift. There is no brutal Monty-like pensiveness. Call it experience, but he is no longer one to force the issue.
Much of Westwood’s appeal comes from his everyman quality. He has a hinterland not all sportsmen so confidently project. An easy and obliging interviewee, his passion for football and horse racing is enthusiastically transmitted. You suspect success has changed him little, certainly he has not succumbed to the transatlantic drawl of some of his contemporaries. Like last year’s Open Champion Darren Clarke, a friend and obvious inspiration, he appears amiable company in which to share a beer and a friendly chat. No pretence, just a decent, honest sort. It may sound trite but this is a rare commodity. You feel the warmth from the galleries. The spectators, club stalwarts and rank novices alike, want him to do well.
Well, in this depiction, means finally shifting this burdensome monkey off his back. Lytham, with its windswept fairways and very British homeliness, will provide a wonderful opportunity to make that major dream a reality. Character will be under the microscope every bit as much as talent. Westwood has plenty of both but also a sense of perspective to realise that there will be other days should this prove not to be enough. If, though, he were to find himself standing over the eighteenth hole with a testing putt for glory, there might indeed be many watching through their fingers, but the subsequent roar will be heard far, far away.