Westwood shows serious game, plenty of wit

Lee Westwood during Thursday's first round of the PGA Tour's 2014 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The day didn’t start well. Some might say it never does when the alarm is set for 4:50 a.m. Even worse, Lee Westwood got up before the ringing noise, at 4 for what he termed a “call of nature.” On his way back to a few more winks, the Englishman cracked his knee on the side of the bed.

“I’ve been struggling with that all day, limping around,” Westwood said about nine hours later.

A former No. 1 golfer in the world, he was able to joke about the knee bump because his day got a lot better, and fast. There was no limp in his golf performance. He would go on to shoot a bogey-free, 5-under 67 in the first round of The Players Championship.

Westwood did so as a dew sweeper. He was first off at 7:15, an odd time for such an accomplished player, one who has won some 40 tournaments worldwide and has eight top-3 major finishes since June 2008. He was surprised by the draw, considering he hasn’t been the “first ball in the air” in about two decades. But he hardly was complaining about a time normally reserved for a field filler.

“It was great,” said Westwood, who ended a two-year winless drought April 20 at the Maybank Malaysian Open. “The play was fast, there was (no wind). If they want to keep giving me first off, I’m happy with that. ... This is like having a handicap again, getting a shot.”

On top of all that, it was a beautiful morning, he started with two tap-in birdies and he found peace in the midst of a sparse gallery.

“If they would have shouted out their names, I’d have known them all by name,” Westwood cracked. “There were a good eight there. It was nice and quiet. There were no shadows creeping over the tee as the sun came up, no phones going off and no rattling of change in pockets.”

You shoot 77, you don’t tap into your humor gene. You shoot 67 and you might act like it’s open-mic night at the Improv. So it was with Westwood, his wry British wit usually on the ready.

Take his swing transition, please. Westwood had two long, successful stints with renowned instructor Pete Cowen. After leaving him last summer and having several unproductive months under Sean Foley’s tutleage, Westwood joined up with Cowen protege Mike Walker in February with the intent of restoring the swing that made him one of the game’s best ballstrikers.

“We call Pete ‘Darth Vader,’ so we should really call (Walker) Mike ‘Luke’ Skywalker, shouldn’t we?” Then, Westwood being Westwood, he smiled and added, “I’m writing your lines for you now.”

Any bit of help is appreciated, of course. That applies whether you are writing or swinging. In Westwood’s case, he has transitioned quickly under Walker with what the coach calls a “new old” motion. The seventh-place finish at the Masters was Westwood’s second top-15 effort worldwide since he tied for third at the Open Championship last July.

His confidence got a further boost when he won the Maybank Malaysian Open by seven strokes the week after Augusta. He lost feeling in his swing while shooting 71-76 and missing the cut by two strokes last week at the Wells Fargo Championship. But he said the right feel came back Monday 30 minutes into a three-hour session with Walker at Old Palm Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens.

“He’s given me a few drills to work on that’s going to gradually ingrain (good feel),” the world’s 30th-ranked golfer said. “And I find it quite easy to take onto the golf course.”

Walker said he had Westwood swing with the right thumb off the club to help with backswing plane and setting the club at the top. The coach also has had him hit pitches cross-handed in an effort to stay centered.

“He’s monotonous, like a machine,” Walker said of his student’s hitting ability.

Until this spring, though, Westwood didn’t like his swing for about 18 months. He has been trying to get away from moving his right arm and club too far behind him. He enjoyed spending time with Foley but says their ideas didn’t match up. The Englishman says he long has been into swing positions and been fine with idiosyncrasies such as bent left elbow and a ball-back position. He says he never embraced Foley’s TrackMan usage and different philosophy.

While Westwood’s current swing has lifted his spirits, it’s a work in progress, given the inconsistencies of the past three weeks. Walker suggests a “bad flight” back from Malaysia did Westwood’s body no favors. The golfer himself chalked last week up to growing pains.

“Some days you feel like you can’t hit a bad shot,” Westwood said. “Other days you feel like you don’t know which end of the club to hold. That’s what it’s like when you’re making swing changes. Sometimes it feels in the slot and sometimes it doesn’t.”

It helps that he’s back at a TPC Sawgrass course he likes, one where he has finished in the top 8 two of his past three appearances, one that favors strong ballstriking. That combination helps explain why he is in contention here.

Limp or no limp.

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