During a Dunhill Cup news conference in the late 1990s, Mark James asked British partner Lee Westwood if the Old Course at St. Andrews ranked among his top 50 favorite courses. When Westwood said no, James sought clarification.
“In Scotland?” James asked.
“No, in Fife,” Westwood said.
Fife would be the county-like region in and around St. Andrews. With that one little playful volley, Westwood would draw a mustache on the ancient home of golf. The jab came because Westwood admittedly “struggled to get the hang of St. Andrews and appreciate its little subtleties” early in his career.
“It went down fairly amusingly,” James says now, recalling the exchange.
But unlike Scott Hoch, who once called the Old Course the “worst piece of mess” and suggested it would play better backward, Westwood has acquired a taste for the hallowed ground. Hence, the wry Englishman enters the 150th anniversary of the Open Championship there July 15-18 not only as a favorite but as an admirer.
“I regret saying that (to James) because it keeps being brought up every time St. Andrews is mentioned,” said Westwood, No. 3 in the world and the current major-domo of resurgent English golf. “But at the same time, it encouraged me to see the subtleties and grow to love it.”
A couple of things helped change Westwood’s mind. First, renowned caddie Dave Musgrove looped for him there and set him straight. “He said, ‘Don’t you see this?’ and ‘Don’t you see that?’ ” Westwood recalled. “He pointed out a few things I didn’t understand about the place.”
Second, Westwood won the 2003 Dunhill Links Championship there by one stroke over Ernie Els.
“There’s nothing that makes you love a place like winning about 700,000 euros on it,” he said.
That’s Westwood in a snapshot. He’s a playful type who cracks in sound bites rather than paragraphs. Candor is never far away.
When/where: July 15-18; The Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland
Par/yardage: 72 / 7,305
Defending champion: Stewart Cink (2-under 278, Turnberry, Scotland)
Purse/first place (2009): $6.52 million ($1.22 million to winner)
ESPN: Thursday-Friday (5 a.m.-3 p.m.), Saturday (7 a.m.-2:30 p.m.), Sunday (6 a.m.-1:30 p.m.)
ABC: Saturday-Sunday (3-6 p.m., recap)
“He tells the truth,” James said. “He always has been an amusing guy who happens to be a good golfer. There are no hidden sides to Lee. What you see is what you get. His sense of humor is great.”
The same can be said about his golf at the moment. Though 12 of his 20 PGA European Tour victories came in 1998-2000, Westwood has never been more of a loaded gun than now, entering his 51st major championship. He had five top 10s in majors through 2007 but has posted four top 3s since summer ’08. He finished a stroke out of playoffs at the 2008 U.S. Open and last year’s British Open, lost by three shots to Phil Mickelson at this year’s Masters and tied for third at the PGA Championship last August.
Having witnessed the rise, three-time major champion Padraig Harrington mentions Westwood in the same breath as the two Americans ranked ahead.
“I would have said going into the U.S. Open (where Westwood tied for 16th) that he was the best player in the world,” the Irishman said. “I would say statistically every week that he’s the best. Tiger (Woods) and Phil (Mickelson) on their game are better than him, but I think he’s on his game more often.”
Perhaps no one hits the ball more solidly. Fellow Englishman Justin Rose, one of the game’s hottest players of late, frames it that way.
“I don’t see Tiger and Phil as ballstrikers,” Rose said. “I see them as magicians, the way they play. They’re great scorers. But in terms of ballstriking, the way Westwood hits his driver and his crisp iron play, he’s pretty darn good.”
Rose also fancies Westwood’s attitude. Missed putts, he says, are met by little or no reaction.
“That’s what serves him well in the majors,” Rose said of Westwood’s acceptance. “He’s had a few tough losses, but he keeps coming back.”
The missing element, of course, is a major trophy. No one has played the big stuff as consistently well as Westwood over the past couple of years, but he’ll be the first to tell you there’s a void.
“There’s still unfinished business,” he said.
Not that he appears burdened by the lack.
“All in all, I’ve played pretty well the last round of majors,” he said. “I just haven’t done enough.”
Westwood won the St. Jude Classic last month, his only PGA Tour victory since his first 12 years earlier. Hence when he arrived at the following week’s U.S. Open, questioning about Memphis and majors referenced a certain zoo animal.
“Was it a monkey off my back?” he said. “Well, it was a monkey off my back for you (the media). Yeah. Because you kept going on about it. It didn’t worry me too much. . . . The most pressure comes from me and the expectations I have. I hate to tell you this, but I don’t really pay attention to what you (reporters) write and think. I know that’s going to disappoint you. I’ve been putting myself in a position to win a major and feel I ought to be expected to win a major now.”
The one he knows he kicked away was the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry. He finished a shot out of the playoff – won by Stewart Cink over Tom Watson – after three-putting for bogey from 60 feet on the final hole. Leader alone on the 15th tee, Westwood said he second-guessed himself for a couple of days and had a sleepless night before finally deciding to take away positives.
Westwood backed away from the long putt at 18 because sunlight was reflecting off the ID badge on his cap and onto the ball. After readjusting the cap, he heard cheering from behind and figured correctly that one-shot leader Watson’s drive had found the fairway.
“I thought, ‘Well, he’s going to make 4, most probably he’s going to only need an 8- or 9-iron, and chances are I need this one to tie,’ ” Westwood said. “So it was sort of in my head that I need to hole it.”
He said he didn’t rush the next putt, a 10-footer for par, in disgust. Rather, he had decided a few weeks earlier to speed up his putting routine “because I felt I was spending too much time over the ball and getting too many thoughts in my head.” Under the new way, he didn’t take practice strokes.
“The deflation came afterwards when I was signing the card and I heard a groan (Watson en route to bogey). I said, ‘I didn’t really want to hear a groan.’ I wanted to hear a big cheer, (where he) knocked it to 3 feet and beat me by three.”
People have focused on Westwood’s inability to close in the past couple of years. Some 10-12 years ago, that wasn’t the case.
“When Lee turned pro, he didn’t look special,” James said. “He was a terrible chipper and average bunker player. But he worked hard and became a tremendous player. In (1998-00), every time he was in contention he won. He was the best closer in Europe. It was amazing.”
But he fell from the top three on the European Tour in 1997-2000 to 52nd and 75th the next two seasons. Starting in 2001, he made but five cuts in majors the next four years and finished better than 36th just once. By 2003, Westwood had plummeted to 378 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index.
“I got to the point where I didn’t really know where to aim,” Westwood said. “I didn’t want to play anymore the way I was playing. I was showing up not knowing what to expect and not wanting to be there.”
Westwood got back to basic fundamentals under David Leadbetter and continually self-pumped his way to thinking he was still good.
“You kid yourself all the time that your glass is half full to try to turn it around . . . and eventually the old juices start to flow again,” said Westwood, who has chosen not to work with sports psychologists. “I kind of really don’t look back on (the slump). I’ve learned things from it, but the rest I’ve kind of just washed away.”
He is equipped to challenge at majors now because he ramped up his short game in the past couple of years with the help of instructor Pete Cowen. Before that, he rebuilt his puffy body by lifting heavy weights under the guidance of trainer Steve McGregor.
“I looked to the people at the top of the world ranking,” he said in explaining his launch into fitness. “They were all big lugs with big shoulders. I hit 30 and things started to ache a little bit more. If I wanted to have longevity, I needed to do something about it.”
Now, at 37, he’s the kingpin in the rise of English golf. When Westwood rose to fourth in the world a decade ago, he was the only Englishman in the top 100. Now he’s the leader among four Brits in the top nine, six in the lead 35 and 12 in the first 100.
Westwood is the one who has resided his entire life in Worksop, England, an industrial town of about 39,000 on the northern edge of Sherwood Forest. He’s the one who likes fast cars, snooker, American sports, music and comedic movies. But not books. The son of a retired mathematics teacher claims, remarkably, to have never finished one because they fail to hold his attention.
Majors are a different story. They command his focus, and he took years to get a read on them.
“I’ve always been a pretty slow learner,” Westwood said. “It takes me a little while to grasp things and get the hang of things.”
Exhibit A is that historic stretch of land on the Fife coast.