LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- Since the beginning of 2012, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood have been in a tug of war for No. 1 in the world. At times this battle between European Ryder Cup teammates from the United Kingdom has been a fascinating subplot of the season.
The Masters was still a month off, but McIlroy held the golf world captive for a few weeks in late February and early March as he climbed to No. 1 in the world for the first time after a win at the Honda Classic. He went back and forth for a while with Donald, trading places at the top, with Westwood comfortable in saying that he had been there and done that.
Yet what these three yearn for most this year is to win a major. Heading into the Open Championship, they have collectively had a very disappointing year in the majors. Through the Masters and the U.S. Open, there are just two top-10s between the three of them, and Westwood got them both. At Olympic, where Donald and McIlroy missed the cut, Westwood finished in a tie for 10th. At the Masters, Westwood tied for third.
Royal Lytham & St. Annes could save the year for one of these players. A high place on the world ranking can't mean much to the top golfers in the world if they can't answer the bell in the game's most prized events. You play the game to win the big tournaments, not for the glories bequeathed by a statistical model.
Westwood has a chance to become the first Englishman to win the Open on English soil since Tony Jacklin took the championship here in 1969. Of the players assembled this week at this seaside resort on England's northwest coast, the 39-year-old Westwood, who grew up in nearby Nottinghamshire, has the most accomplished record in the majors without a win. He has 14 top-10s, including seven top-3s, in 57 major appearances.
"This is the biggest championship in the world for me," Westwood said. "It would obviously mean a lot, not just because Tony was the last Englishman to win the Open Championship, but because it's the Championship."
When you've been as close to winning a major as Westwood has over the years, you're always looking for redemption. In 2009 at Turnberry, a three-putt at the 72nd hole would ultimately keep him out a playoff between Tom Watson and Stewart Cink.
Putting did him in again this year at the Masters. It's the one aspect of his game that could hurt his chances this week, but on Tuesday he rebuffed any notion that he has a poor short game.
"I don't think you can get to [No.] 1 in the world without much of a short game," he said. "If you're at the top of the world rankings, people are going to compare different aspects of your game to other people in the top of the world rankings.
"Those people up there have got strengths and they've got weaknesses. Luke's strengths are from 80 yards in. My strengths are tee to green. But you've got to understand that you can't be the best in the world at everything, otherwise you'd be miles in front."
Westwood's main strength is his ball striking. But on Tuesday, he stressed the importance of bringing a complete game to the course when he tees off Thursday at 4:20 a.m. ET with Bubba Watson and Yoshinori Fujimoto.
"I think my game suits most places," he said. "That's why I contend most weeks in major championships recently. They're the ultimate test. That's why everyone puts them on such a pedestal.
"And in those ultimate tests, every aspect of your game has got to be strong. I've contended most weeks and given myself a chance, so I don't see any reason why this week should be any different."
This week Westwood doesn't face the same pressure as Donald and McIlroy. At least Westwood contended in the first two majors. At least he has played like a guy who is ranked in the top three in the world.
Perhaps Donald has the most pressure as No. 1 in the world. In 2011, he won the money title on both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, and this year he has two worldwide victories. Since ascending to No. 1 in May 2011, the 34-year-old Englishman has represented a new model of what it means to sit on the top of the world ranking -- a stark departure from Tiger Woods, who made being No. 1 synonymous with winning majors.
Donald hopes to become the 16 consecutive different winner in a major. For him to do it, though, he has to overcome the pressure and anxiety that come with trying to win one of the game's big four.
"I just have been getting a little bit too uptight and anxious," said Donald, who has a tie for 32nd at the Masters to go along with his missed cut at Olympic. "It's about, for me, just kind of controlling it and predetermining how I want to feel and trying to stick to that. There will be times when I get uptight, but then I've just got to kind of remember where I am and how I want to feel over each shot.
"And really it's a very cliché thing, but the only thing I'm really focusing on is that first shot on Thursday, hitting a good, solid shot and going from there, finding that ball and going to the putt and then going to the second hole and not really getting too far ahead of myself and raising those expectations, which I have done in the past."
McIlroy has a slightly different perspective from Donald and Westwood. On Tuesday, he reminded us that he got to No. 1 after he won his first major at the U.S. Open at Congressional. The stakes are still high for him this week, but at 23 and still maturing as a professional athlete, he has time on his side to sort through the kind of slump that has seen him miss four of his last six cuts.
After winning at Congressional last year, McIlroy took three weeks off before coming into the Open at Royal St. Georges. He couldn't shake the rust and finished in a tie for 25th. This year he took only two weeks off leading into the event.
Over the past several days, he has tried to get his game into competition mode by using Jack Nicklaus' one-ball tip. On Sunday, he played 13 holes at Lytham with one ball, instead of throwing down several balls during his practice round.
"If you haven't played a tournament [for a] week or two, it gets you back into that competitive frame of mind," McIlroy said. "You're seeing shots and focusing on targets. Because sometimes, when you're at a practice round, you're just trying to see the course, and sometimes you're just going through the motions, and it's good to really focus out there and try and shoot a few scores."
McIlroy, who first played Royal Lytham as a 17-year-old amateur in the Lytham Trophy, a prestigious amateur event at the club, is excited about his game.
"I feel like I'm hitting the ball great," he said. "I think it's the best I've swung the club all year. As I said, it's keeping the ball in play, keeping it out of the bunkers and out of the rough. Not only if I can do that, but if anyone can do that in this field, they've got a great chance."
Westwood and Donald share McIlroy's mantra about succeeding this week at Lytham. With 205 bunkers, the players know what they need to do to maneuver around this quirky layout. They know what's expected of the top three players in the world. They know that time is running out on the season and there is no better place to win a major than in Europe, the continent they will represent in the Ryder Cup in September in Medinah, Ill.
"I prefer to win a major because I'm selfish," Westwood said playfully. "I'd like to win the Ryder Cup, as well. But, no, I haven't won a major yet and I'd like to win one or two or three."
For now, he'll settle for the one that will be decided Sunday afternoon at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.