Westwood leads PGA with 65, lifts Ryder Cup hopes

Lee Westwood (right) shakes hands with his caddie, Billy Foster, after firing a 6-under 65 at the 2014 PGA Championship.
Lee Westwood (right) shakes hands with his caddie, Billy Foster, after firing a 6-under 65 at the 2014 PGA Championship. ( Associated Press )

Friday, August 8, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – If he isn’t quite the Alfred E. Neuman of the professional golf world, Lee Westwood is close.

Especially in Ryder Cup years.

His back’s to the wall. He has shown very little form. He missed the cut in the summer Opens on each side of the pond. He is rumored not to be held in strong favor by captain Paul McGinley. He probably is at the end of his run of eight straight Ryder Cup appearances.

Theories, suspicions, ungrounded talk. None of which fazes Westwood. Ask him about his current state of mind and he’ll smile. What, him worry? Not a chance.

“I can play under pressure. I know how to play under pressure,” Westwood said last Sunday at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.

But as if to prove he knows it is better to walk the walk than talk the talk, the 41-year-old Englishman heard McGinley’s words – “He said, ‘try to show some form,' " – and answered with numbers.

“I’ve shot 63 last Sunday, and I’m leading a major this week. So I’m ticking that box for him,” Westwood said.

Indeed, four days after closing out his Bridgestone Invitational with that 63, Westwood opened the 96th PGA Championship with an impressive 65 – impressive because it included a double bogey, at his 10th hole, the par-4 first, and a bogey. Particularly annoying, that No. 1 hole, because Westwood’s ball came to rest in a nasty divot in the fairway and whereas he should have had a simple 9-iron from 145 yards, he could only muscle his second shot 130 yards. A sloppy chip, a missed 4-footer, and, well, “I was in a good frame of mind on the second tee.”

Kidding, of course, which is perhaps a Westwood staple.

“His ballstriking and his sense of humor,” Billy Foster said, when asked what it is that has always impressed him about Westwood. One of the game’s great caddies and most astute minds, Foster has worked for Westwood for years, with breaks here and there. The latest came in 2013, but by the end of the year they were back together, and few know Westwood any better than Foster.

• Check out Westwood's equipment he used on Thursday at Valhalla.

So if you think that perhaps this current Ryder Cup picture has Westwood ruffled, best to ask Foster. And when you do, he’ll offer a smile and tell you simply that the Englishman “never pushes the panic button.”

There’s too brilliant a body of work to consider. For instance, Europe has won six of the eight Ryder Cups in which Westwood has competed, and during that time the Englishman has compiled an 18-13-7 record. When in 2006 Westwood was coming out of a long slump and in need of a captain’s pick, Ian Woosnam granted it to him. Westwood responded famously, playing in all five sessions to the tune of 3-0-2.

His current position is 16th on the World Points List and there are six players ahead of him, including Luke Donald and Ian Poulter. If McGinley were forced to pick right now, there seems to be little doubt that one pick would go to Poulter, perhaps the other to Donald, and the third might come down to Westwood or Stephen Gallacher, who would be the only Scotsman playing in front of the Scottish fans.

It is not where Westwood envisioned being at the start of the season. “I don’t want to rely on a pick,” he said. “I’m still trying to qualify for the team to free up a pick for Paul.”

But if he doesn’t, there seems to be a mission statement being scripted by Westwood, because after a summer of indifferent play, he appears confident and in great control of his emotions. Just 1 under for his round after that disappointing double bogey, Westwood maintained composure, ran off two straight pars, then caught fire: Birdies at four (3 feet), six (14 feet), seven (6 feet), eight (16 feet) and nine (40 feet).

From the second page of the leaderboard to a share of clubhouse lead halfway through, Westwood could smile – but only after giving credit to Foster.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing and it will come,” Westwood said, laughing. “Hate those words from him.”

But Foster not only knows this art of caddieing, he knows his boss. After that double at the first hole, Foster thought it was important to make sure that Westwood remained cool and collected.

It worked, too, and because it did to the tune of nine birdies, a double, and that ugly double, Westwood’s 65 had an awful lot of people rethinking their Ryder Cup picture.

McGinley had asked Westwood for some form? Westwood seems determined to deliver.