Jeff Rude’s “I Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday, the same day as his video show of the same name.
AKRON, Ohio – Lee Westwood is ranked No. 2 in the world and has five top-3 finishes in his last eight major championships. Those glossy facts, of course, suggest Westwood knows a thing or two about playing golf at the highest level and hardly needs much advice on how to hone his craft.
Yet, on the heels of his missing the British Open cut by a mere stroke, the Englishman came to America the other day and sought out not one prominent guru but two.
First, he flew to New York and had a lengthy session with Bob Rotella, the sports psychologist who helped Westwood’s close pal Darren Clarke free up his putting at the Open Championship, a development that aided Clarke’s surprise victory there.
Then, upon arriving here for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Westwood spent about 90 minutes Monday and more time Tuesday with putting instructor Dave Stockton. Stockton has won two PGA Championships and captained the 1991 U.S. Ryder Cup team to victory at the dramatic, so-called War at the Shore. But these days is he known as the hottest putting coach, one who has helped the likes of four-time major winner Phil Mickelson and 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy.
The moral here is that no matter how good a player is, he still wants to find ways to improve and seek an edge.
“I had to do something different, get some different thoughts,” Westwood said. “I got stuck in some of the same old thoughts.”
Westwood’s visit with Rotella is interesting if for no other reason than he has expressed disinterest in sports psychologists over the years. Last year he told me, “I’ve got a good grasp of reality and how I want to think and don’t want that tampered with.”
One might think that Rotella’s influence on Clarke at Royal St. George’s prompted Westwood to enlist the same mental coach, but the Englishman says otherwise. “I’ve been thinking about seeing a psychologist for a while,” he said.
Rotella and Stockton advised he speed up his putting process and become more natural and less mechanical. The two have a similar philosophy in approach in that they strongly advocate a free and unconscious stroke, one that involves seeing and feeling and letting go, as one might do while signing his name or throwing a ball at a target.
“(Stockton) threw about 15 things at me,” Westwood said. “I sifted through and like some of them. It’s felt a lot better. It’s felt like it’s flowing better.”
Westwood is one of the game’s best ball-strikers but has been a streaky putter. Stockton, for one, has an idea why.
“I thought he tended to be mechanical and take too long,” Stockton said. “So we tried to speed him up. I told him, ‘If I say 1, it will be followed by 2 and 3. If I get to 4, you had better hit the putt.’ I want him to just let go and don’t worry about it.”
Stockton advises players to calibrate speed while lining up a putt behind the ball. He dislikes practice strokes beside the ball because he feels they lead to thinking too much and turn a putting stroke into an exercise similar to “trying to copy your signature.” The reasoning is, writing your name is a simple, flowing act; in trying to copy the signature, one turns smooth into herky-jerky.
Westwood’s routine has been to take two practice strokes by the ball, prompting Stockton to get him to “set the putter down and look at the hole.”
It remains to be seen how the newly educated Westwood fares this week and, more importantly, next week at the PGA Championship. But given that Westwood has seen two men who have helped winners of the last two majors, McIlroy cracked, “He should win by 12 next week.”
• Stockton still was beaming here over his texting exchange with Mickelson the night before the left-hander made several long putts while moving into contention in the final round of the British Open.
“I feel I got through to him,” Stockton said.
Stockton said he got a text from Mickelson after the third round that read, “My game feels close.” Stockton said he took exception and texted back, “I disagree with that. You are a multiple major championship winner. You already know how to do it. Go out and enjoy it and play the way you can.”
He said Mickelson texted back, saying, “You’re right. I really look forward to tomorrow.”
“And he showed it,” the coach said, beaming. “I was so excited watching him that Sunday. He looked so comfortable in his own skin.”
• Whom will Tiger Woods hire as his next permanent caddie? I concur with several insiders who think Tony Navarro, former longtime looper for Greg Norman and Adam Scott, seems like a perfect fit.
One caddie told me his money might be on Fanny Sunesson, who worked for Nick Faldo for years and now is with Henrik Stenson.
But another caddie discounted the Fanny idea, cracking, “Maybe Tiger doesn’t want to get together with another Swedish woman,” a reference to his 2010 divorce from Sweden native Elin Nordegren.
• Get used to the talk that the Atlanta Athletic Club’s par-70, 7,467-yard course, site of next week’s PGA, will play long.
Woods played there Monday and called it “way longer” than it was in 2001, the last time the PGA was there. So you can imagine how medium hitter David Toms, the 2001 winner, felt after visiting AAC on Monday.
“It’s long,” Toms said. “I hope it stays dry. It was about 15 yards longer per hole. I’m not sure I’m 15 yards longer than I was in 2001. Maybe some other guys are.”
Toms said he faced so many 200-yard approach shots that he is getting a 4-hybrid made up just for that event.
“A lot of holes are elevated, and you’ve got to hit a high shot in to stop it,” he said.