Lee Westwood staring at a major
GULLANE, Scotland -- As a lone helicopter and a flock of seagulls circled above him, Lee Westwood boarded a beat-up golf cart, loaded his young son Sam on the back and took a ride toward the Muirfield practice range and into one of the longest and loneliest nights of his life.
He predicted no such anxiety, of course, because nearly every athlete in the same position Westwood was in Saturday evening sings the same, old song. A guy who's never won the Big One tries to convince himself and his audience that it's no big deal to win the Big One, and that his career won't be defined by his failure to, you know, win the Big One.
"It's not the end of the world if it doesn't [happen]," Westwood said.
And practically speaking, he's right. Westwood still gets to go home to his family in their lavish new Florida home, and he still gets to live the zillionaire life, and he still gets to play professional golf for a living. He doesn't have any average-guy problems because he's hardly an average guy.
Westwood has 22 victories on the European Tour, ninth all time, and two more in the States. So even if his list of victories around the globe doesn't exactly amount to a murderers' row of events, Westwood doesn't fit anyone's definition of a loser, or even a choker. He might be 0-for-61 in the majors, but there isn't a Van de Veldeian meltdown in his past, or a gag job to rival Greg Norman's at the '96 Masters, or an I'm-such-an-idiot finish to match Phil Mickelson's at Winged Foot.
If Lee Westwood goes oh-for-life in the four biggest golf tournaments of the year, he might as well follow the artist formerly known as Artest (as in Ron), pull a Metta World Peace, and formally change his name to Never Wona Major.
Someday it's going to be in the second paragraph of his obituary, if not the first. Those are the terms of engagement for any big-name athlete, the price that comes with the fortune and fame.
Especially in an individual sport, where there's nobody to blame but the man in your locker room mirror (unless you're Sergio Garcia and there are ghosts and gremlins and faceless bunker rakers to blame). The likes of Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Ernie Banks can blame their ring-free fingers on the lesser lights assembled around them.
But Westwood doesn't play a team sport, just like Andy Murray doesn't play a team sport. Murray won the U.S. Open and finally ended the biblical British drought at Wimbledon. He only knows what it takes to win a Grand Slam event because he's done it -- twice.
"Even though I haven't won a major," he said, "I know what it takes to win one."
No, he does not. At 40, Westwood has seven top-three finishes in the majors without a victory, the most since Bobby Jones kicked off some little C-flight tournament called the Masters.
So yeah, scaling that mental hurdle Sunday will be like scaling Everest in roller skates, only harder, and Westwood's buddy, Woods, knows it.
"I've got 14 of these things," Tiger said, "and I know what it takes to win it. He's won tournaments all over the world. He knows how to win golf tournaments."
The second half of that quote might've sounded like a compliment, but it wasn't designed to flatter. Even though he's working on his own five-year dry spell, Woods was reminding the world -- and Westwood -- that it's much easier to chase No. 15 than it is to chase No. 1.
The pressure, Westwood maintained, "comes from the expectation I put on myself ... I don't really live my life outside-in. I don't live it and run it according to what other people think."
This was his post-round mantra, the beddy-bye story he was telling himself. Westwood had just outplayed Woods head-to-head in a major (in six such pairings since 2008, Tiger has failed to outscore him), had just made a big birdie putt on 17 (on top of Tiger's bogey) after making a big bogey save (yes, a bogey save) on 16, and he wasn't about to halt his own momentum in his news conference.
"When it comes to tee off around 3-ish," Westwood said, "I should be in the same frame of mind as I was today. I didn't feel any pressure today and felt nice and calm out there and in control of what I was doing."
Nice and calm and in control? On truth serum, wouldn't Westwood admit that this would be an elusive state of grace for a long-suffering Englishman 18 holes away from pay dirt at the Open Championship?
"You try and picture yourself winning the Open Championship tonight," he said, "but forget about it tomorrow and go and tee off down the first, and focus on it in the middle of the fairways with the first tee shot and go from there."
Forget about it?
"If I'd have done the right things at the right times and just a couple of things had gone my way," Westwood said, "this wouldn't be my first major championship win, if I do that [Sunday]. I've had lots of chances. I could have won four with just the right things going my way."
But Westwood didn't win those four. In fact, the record shows he's won four fewer than those four. If Westwood really believes his career full of missed opportunities won't be on his mind down the Open Championship stretch, I've got a bridge (and not the Swilcan) to sell him.
Westwood did concede he would think about winning the big one before he fell asleep Saturday night.
"I don't see anything wrong with that," he said. "Picture yourself holding the Claret Jug at the final tee and seeing your name at the top of the leaderboard."
Could Westwood become only the fourth man to claim his first major victory at 40 or older since 1970? Sure, it can happen. He's the crowd favorite, a Ryder Cup toughie and a guy who poured in a 45-foot eagle putt after going driver-driver at No. 5.
Westwood has the hot hand, and Woods has never come from behind on a Sunday to win a major. Adam Scott broke through at the Masters, Justin Rose broke through at the U.S. Open, so why can't Westwood honor the Muirfield fans' shouts of, "This one is yours," and make it 3-for-3 for the first-timers?
Only he can answer that question. Saturday night, Westwood was the last man standing on the range, sharpening his swords for the fight.
Deep down, he knows he will feel intense final-round pressure. He knows he sorta lied when he said another loss won't be the end of the world, because it's sure going to feel like the end of the world Sunday afternoon.
Every big-name athlete without a big-game title says the same things, and fesses up later. Truth is, Lee Westwood knows he's a mere 18 holes away from being the world's luckiest man.
He also knows he's going to be the world's loneliest man on the way there.