Commentary

Westwood's common-sense approach

His play reminds everyone the Masters isn't a two-horse race

Updated: April 6, 2012, 9:49 AM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeLee Westwood
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesOn the front nine, Lee Westwood carded four consecutive birdies.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- On Tuesday, Lee Westwood warned the world in his news conference that this year's Masters was not a two-horse race. On Thursday he made that message loud and clear with a 5-under-par 67 to take a 1-shot lead over Louis Oosthuizen and Peter Hanson. His 67 tied his career-low Masters round in this, his 13th appearance.

"I wasn't trying to remind anyone of anything," Westwood said Thursday. "I was just trying to be the voice of common sense."

Common sense. That's what the 38-year-old Englishman says shows his knack for defusing the hype centered on some of his rivals. When Rory McIlroy took a commanding lead after 54 holes at the U.S. Open last June, Westwood tried to bring some perspective.

"They don't give trophies away on Fridays and Saturdays," he said with a sarcastic wit.

On Tuesday he told the media that it was na´ve to think that McIlroy and Tiger Woods were in a two-man race for this year's green jacket.

"I think Phil [Mickelson] might have a little bit of something to say about that. Luke [Donald] might. I might," he said.

Westwood, a winner of 33 tournaments worldwide, won't admit it, but he's got a chip on his shoulder. He's the most accomplished winner in the stable of Chubby Chandler's clients at ISM that includes Oosthuizen, Darren Clarke and Charl Schwartzel, but he's the only one of that group without a major championship.

The chip grew bigger when McIlroy, whom he had mentored, left the stable in the fall after winning the U.S. Open. This year, McIlroy beat his former mentor in a much-hyped semifinal match in February at the Accenture Match Play. It didn't help matters that McIlroy later ascended to No. 1 with a win at the Honda Classic.

On Thursday, Westwood hit 12 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens. He made four straight birdies from the fifth to the eighth hole. His bogeys came at the long par-3 fourth hole, which ranked as the fourth-hardest hole Thursday, and the 10th, which ranked fifth-hardest.

"I have been playing well all year," said Westwood, who had fourth-place finishes at both the Accenture and the Honda Classic. "I'm feeling pretty confident but I'm not trying to let myself get carried away.

"You can play your way out of the tournament in the first round and I'm just happy that I put myself in a good position for the next three rounds."

At the 2010 Masters, Westwood finished second, three shots behind Phil Mickelson. That was also the year when he placed second at the British Open. In his career, he has 12 top-10 finishes in the majors, including eight top-5 finishes. You know he wants to win a major badly, but he's been close so many times that he's come around to a very philosophical, common-sense approach to the issue.

"Obviously if I sit down at the end of my career and there's no major championship wins, I'll be disappointed," he said. "If there's five, six, I'll be delighted. But you know, at the end of the day, that won't actually change that much, will it?

"It will be, you know, the impression I've had on people and whether I've basically gone away having done more good than bad."

But he must be excited about his chances to finally get that career-defining win after this stellar first round, in which he beat all the favorites. He loves the golf course. It suits his game.

"[Augusta] was originally designed as a second-shot golf course," he said. "And my iron shots are one of the strengths of my game.

"Basically, you know, over the years, I've just gained experience and learned how to play the golf course. I listened to Phil do an interview the other day and he said he can get around here when he's not playing that well, and that is basically because he knows where to miss it and that only comes from experience."

Before Westwood's 12:58 p.m. tee time, his caddie, Billy Foster, had warned his boss about some of the difficult pin placements. Westwood knew from his caddie's fact-finding mission and from the morning scores that the course wasn't going to be the birdie fest Mickelson had predicted it would be earlier in the week with the soft conditions.

On Thursday, Westwood was smart enough to know when not to attack certain pins. At the difficult first hole, which was the hardest hole on the course, instead of trying to force his approach to a difficult left pin, he left himself 25 feet short and right.

So you see it's all there for him this week: the experience, the poise and the comfort with the golf course. Over these next three rounds, he would do well to learn from all his past experiences and some of the sage advice he's imparted to his rivals.

It might not rock his foundation to not have a major at the end of his career, but a green jacket might help him finally lift that chip off his shoulder.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.