Time is not on Westwood’s side much longer
This is not Lee Westwood’s last chance to win a major. It might not even be his best chance.
History won’t be on his side much longer, however, and time isn’t too far behind.
Westwood’s best friend, Darren Clarke, was 42 when he finally captured his first major last year at the British Open. That put him in an elite group, though nowhere near the prestigious group of names on the claret jug. Clarke is one of only six players in 160 years of championship golf to capture his first major in his 40s.
The list starts with Old Tom Morris, who really wasn’t that old (40) when he won the second Open Championship in 1861 at Prestwick. It took nearly 100 years for another player in his 40s to win his first major when Tommy Bolt won the 1958 U.S. Open at age 42. The others were Jerry Barber (45 in the 1961 PGA Championship), Roberto De Vicenzo (44 in the 1967 British Open), Tom Kite (42 in the 1992 U.S. Open) and Mark O’Meara (40 in the 1998 Masters).
Westwood is 39.
The more meaningful number for Westwood is ”3” and it can be interpreted a couple of ways. He is No. 3 in the world, and that’s no accident. One reason for such a high ranking is his performance in the majors. When he tied for third in the Masters this year, it was his seventh top-3 finish in a major. That’s the most of any player who has never won a major dating to the creation of the Masters in 1934, and Westwood compiled this record since the U.S. Open in 2008 at Torrey Pines.
It would seem he’s getting close.
There is even more attention on Westwood at this British Open because of where he’s from and where it is being played. The answer to both is England, and the last English player to win an Open on English soil was Tony Jacklin in 1969 – at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Luke Donald is No. 1 in the world, also without a major.
The money would be on Westwood getting their first, simply because of his performance in the majors. He has come close three times, while Donald has never come up the 18th at a major looking like he had a chance to win.
Based on his worldwide wins (38) and number of serious chances in a major (three), Westwood wins every argument as the best player to have never won a major from his generation. And it didn’t take long for him to be reminded of that Tuesday in his news conference.
The moderator mentioned that Jacklin had spoken to the press only the day before, and what would it mean to follow in his footsteps as an English winner of the claret jug on a links course in England?
Westwood doesn’t quite understand how that makes it even more important to win, so he looked at a reporter, smiled and said, ”You know what I’m thinking?” Then, he turned more serious, but only momentarily.
”This is the biggest championship in the world for me,” he said. ”It would obviously mean a lot, not just because Tony was the last Englishman named Tony to win the Open championship, but because it’s the championship.”
He grinned to see if the moderator picked up on the additional ”Tony,” then broke out laughing when it was clear he didn’t.
If nothing else, he is relaxed, or at least seems that way.
Among active players, the last player that few could dispute as the best without a major was Colin Montgomerie, an eight-time winner of the European Tour Order of Merit. He was anything but relaxed, whether it was the British Open or the Dutch Open. Then again, Monty never went through a horrid slump during the peak of his career, one that dropped Westwood from No. 4 to out of the top 200 in the world.
There is a sense that Westwood appreciates how hard he worked to get back to where he belongs. With or without a major – and he made it clear he would much rather have one – he can walk away from the game satisfied.
He had a 15-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines to get into a playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open. A year later at Turnberry, he hit a 9-iron from the fairway bunker that cleared the lip without an inch to spare, a magnificent shot under the pressure, only to three-putt from long range for bogey and finish out of a playoff. He did just about everything right with a one-shot lead at the 2010 Masters. Just his luck, Phil Mickelson did a little better.
Instead of the frustration mounting, the nerves are calming.
”I think I’ve gotten more relaxed and just sort of played and let the cards fall where they may, really,” Westwood said. ”I don’t find myself pressing particularly harder. I think because they are such a tough test, it’s hard to press in major championships. You sort of have to edge your way in there and play sort of conservatively and get in position for the weekend and Sunday afternoon on the back nine see where you are, and then judge whether you should have a go for it or not.
”I know my game is good enough to win when I play well enough,” he said. ”So that’s what I try to do. After that, it’s out of your hands.”
It wasn’t long ago that Mickelson was in that spot, though much younger. He didn’t win his first major until he was 34 at the 2004 Masters, and if he underachieved, it was because he gave himself so few chances. That changed with the U.S. Open in 1999, 2001 and 2002. With the PGA Championship in 2001. With the Masters in 2001.
”I think I had to try to calm myself down all the time constantly heading into majors, because I felt like after having won a PGA Tour event as an amateur, my expectations were to have won a major championship well before I was 34,” Mickelson said. ”And yet, I hadn’t. So I found myself constantly having to slow down my thoughts and try to get control of my thoughts and play the golf course effectively.
”But it helped me when I started getting in contention a lot more,” he added. ”Because the more times you’re in contention, the more you understand the process of what happens, what goes wrong and how to fix it. And it made it easier to compete and contend and to ultimately win after having been in contention that many times.”