Westwood understands majors game
At the 2008 U.S. Open, Lee Westwood missed a tricky 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole that would have put him into the 18-hole playoff with Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate. But afterward Westwood said, "I think that I've proved to myself and a few others that there is a major championship in me."
The Englishman owns seven top-three finishes in majors, all since the Torrey Pines near miss. In 2010, he finished second in both the Masters and the British Open. That year he had taken a one-shot lead into the final round at Augusta, but was outplayed by Phil Mickelson and ultimately finished three shots behind the left-hander. Last year at Congressional in the U.S. Open, Westwood finished 10 shots back of Rory McIlroy and in a tie for third.
In April at the Masters, Westwood took the first-round lead with a 5-under-par 67 and played as good as anyone in the field from tee to green during the week. A balky putter left him two shots outside of the playoff between Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen.
Luke Donald could make a case, but Westwood is arguably the best player in the world without a major. The native of Worksop, England, who still lives near his hometown with his wife and two children, has won 37 tournaments around the world, including 21 on the European Tour. This year he's earned victories in Indonesia and had four top-five finishes on the PGA Tour.
He's been No. 1 in the world and owns two European Tour money titles. Since his maiden pro victory at the 1996 Scandinavian Masters, only a handful of players -- Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh -- have amassed more worldwide wins than Westwood.
He's rightfully more focused now on majors than at any point in his career.
"I'd obviously like to be world No. 1 again," Westwood said at the Wells Fargo Championship. "But winning major championships is really my priority from now on, and if I did that, then I think world No. 1 would come as a consequence."
Now 39, could Westwood be running out of time to get that first major? In two weeks, he will return to The Olympic Club, where in 1998 he finished in a tie for seventh at the U.S. Open. No matter what the USGA does in its setup of the San Francisco gem, few players are better equipped than Westwood to tackle Open conditions.
Yet pedigree and experience have never ensured a player a major championship. Men such as Francis Ouimet, Jack Fleck and Ben Curtis would not have been awarded their prizes if prior wins were a requirement to enter the pantheon of major champions. Mostly it takes some luck and a plan to win a major: a plan put into place long before the time comes for a player's game to peak four weeks a year.
Westwood has accomplished so much in his career, yet the stronger his résumé gets, the absence of a major championship looms larger over his name. It must haunt him. How will he right the ship before time runs out on the best days of his game, before he turns 40 and the slow march toward decline starts for the pro golfer?
Tony Jacklin was the last Englishman to win the U.S. Open, when he blitzed the field in 1970 at Hazeltine for a 7-stroke win. The 67-year-old former European Ryder Cup captain has been for years a keen observer of his fellow countryman, and he knows from personal experience the difficulties that Westwood faces as he tries to play a worldwide schedule.
Westwood has always been a globetrotter, a citizen of the world. He played this week at the BMW PGA in England, where he finished in a tie for 33rd. He'll take a week off before going to Sweden. Then he'll go straight to San Francisco for the U.S. Open. From there he'll take two weeks off, then play the French Open, take another week off, and then play the British Open.
When Jacklin won the 1969 British and the '70 U.S. Open, he was playing full-time on the PGA Tour. He says the biggest regret of his career is that he didn't move to the U.S. during those years. "I don't think a player's career is complete without major championships," said Jacklin, who now lives in Bradenton, Fla. "So I focused on trying to win majors. I think I would have given myself a greater opportunity to win more had I lived here."
Jacklin worries that Westwood's globetrotting is hurting his chances of properly focusing on majors.
"I think that anybody who wants to win major championships should be playing on the PGA Tour," Jacklin said. "I think that's your best chance. Traveling all over the world hurts your chances.
"You can go off for excursions from time to time to other parts of the world. But I think it's hard for players playing all over the world to come to American and hit and run. Monty tried to do that and he came very close to winning majors but he never could finish them out. I think that coming here ... [for] the 10 days around that major is more difficult to do than for a player who plays here a 100 percent of the time."
At the beginning of this year, Westwood committed to playing more on the PGA Tour after seeing the success of Luke Donald. He plans to compete in the minimum number of 15 tournaments to qualify him for the season-ending FedEx Cup playoffs. Yet it's unlikely at this point in his career that he'll play full-time in the U.S. or curtail his international travel.
"Everybody makes their choice and these are important choices when you're younger and you probably don't necessarily realize it at the time, but then at the end it's too late," Jacklin said. "We all have to take that window of opportunity when we are playing our best."
Jacklin likes the course being taken by Rory McIlroy, who has been adamant about his focus on majors almost from Day 1 of his career.
"I'm not sure that Lee made that commitment to himself," Jacklin said. "He wants to win like everybody wants to win. But if you haven't put it in your head earlier, I think you get certain opportunities and you're shocked by it. If you put it in your head as a younger man, then when you get into that arena you have a better chance of getting it done."
As Westwood's priorities have grown more centered on the majors, his putter has been the one element of his game that has kept him from possibly pushing through that threshold. At the Masters this year, Westwood led the field in greens in regulation, but only three players who made the cut did worse than him with the putter. On Sunday at the 15th hole, Westwood missed a 7-foot eagle putt that would have earned him a piece of the lead.
"I work hard on my putting but I can't seem to turn it around. But when I do, I know I'll win," Westwood said after the Masters. "It's a case of grinding away and finding the key to make it click and slip into place."
Geoff Ogilvy, who benefited from Phil Mickelson's collapse on the 72nd hole to win the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, knows something about being in the right place at the right time in major championships. Like many players on tour, the 34-year-old Australian believes it's just a matter of time for Westwood if he can catch a break and make a few putts.
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"Lee hits the ball really, really well," Ogilvy said. "He probably is one of the best, long, straight drivers in the world. He's an unbelievable iron player and hits a lot of greens. If he has a weakness, it's as he gets closer to the hole.
"When you look back, the guy that wins [will have holed] a lot of putts. Some guys get the right thing [to] happen to them in the last few holes of majors and it goes their way. And if that happened to [Westwood], he'd have won a few by now. He hasn't had that happen yet. If he keeps putting himself in position, I think it will be very odd if he doesn't win one or more."
At Olympic, Westwood's U.S. Open is most likely to come down to what he does with his putter. Since the Open was last there in 1998, the greens have been converted from poa annua to bent grass. And the ruthless slope at the 18th green, which tormented players that week, has been flattened considerably so golfers won't have the worrisome free fall on the back of the green.
Westood understands the urgency of playing well in the next several majors. He knows it's going to become harder with every year that goes by that he doesn't get that all-meaningful major championship under his belt. Olympic is the next stop on that journey to golf immortality.
"It's very important for Lee to get off to a fast start at Olympic," Jacklin said. "If he's up there on the leaderboard after the first day I think his chances of winning are much greater.
"I think it's all about getting engaged. You can't win in the first round, but if you can get off to a good start and get into a good position after Round 1, you can get engaged mentally. If you are made of the right stuff, you can get it done from that situation."
Lee Westwood has the right stuff. All he has to do is find it four straight days in the City by the Bay.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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2012 course: The Olympic Club
Yardage, par: 7,170 yards, par-70
2012 champion: Webb Simpson
Past champions: Complete list
Olympic Club hole flyovers: Front 9 | Back 9
Topics: The U.S. Open