PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — He’s been here before. Many times. And more often than pretty much anyone at Royal Portrush not named Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els. Seven under par and well in contention at the 148th Open Championship, for Lee Westwood the next 36 holes are but a step into the all-too familiar. Eighteen times the 46-year-old Englishman has had top-10 finishes in golf’s major championships. In half of those he was either third or second. But not once has he won.
There have been near things, of course. Ten years ago at Turnberry, Westwood rushed his birdie putt on the 72nd green well past, then missed the return. Two putts would have put him in the playoff with Tom Watson and Stewart Cink. In the 2010 Masters, only a rampant Mickelson—and a certain shot off the pine straw at the 13th in the final round—was good enough to beat Westwood. And three years after that, a closing 70 rather than 75 from Westwood at Muirfield would have been enough to see him claim the claret jug, no matter what heroics Mickelson came up with over the closing holes.
In all of those losses, however, there has been a consistently depressing theme. In final rounds and over final holes, Westwood’s ability to hole the putts that matter has dried up. He has rarely played badly, rarely hit the ball less than consistently. But his putting—no two ways about it, and often three—has let him down when it mattered most.
So the $1,935,000 (this year’s record first-place check) question is obvious: Can we really believe that this former World No. 1—now ranked 78th—can get it done this time? Surely there is too much damage to his psyche. Or has maturity brought new perspective and, in turn, a more relaxed relationship with pressure that will cause putts to fall rather than come up short (a perennial failing)?
History is against him becoming the oldest first-time major champion, but this Lee Westwood is making all the right noises. OK, the cynic may argue that long experience has taught him how to best deflect the awkward questions and voices in his head. But his air of serenity seems genuine.
“I'm playing well,” he said after adding a 67 to his opening 68. “I just go out there. I'm 46 years old and still competing with these young lads. I won last year (at the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa). So there's no pressure on me. I just go out there and have fun.”
That much is certainly true. For the first time in a major—this is his 82nd, 25 of them Opens—Westwood has his girlfriend, Helen Storey, as his caddie. Which might be a bit too strong a description of her role out on the course. According to Westwood, his better half knows “virtually nothing about golf.” But what she does have is an intimate understanding of how he thinks.
“Helen keeps me in a good frame of mind and focusing on the right things at the right times,” Westwood said. “There's more to the caddieing than carrying and getting the wind direction. Besides, I enjoy doing it all myself. Get the yardage, pull the club, it's all my responsibility, and I'm 100 percent clear in my mind what I'm doing.”
Helen is enjoying herself, too. With a bunker-raker following every group, she is relieved of at least one responsibility and it “means she doesn’t get sand on her trainers,” says her “boss.” The chat between the pair also has little to do with this game that the caddie doesn’t fully understand. Instead, the conversation veers far from drives, chips and putts. Mostly, any dialogue covers such things as dinner plans, where they might go on holiday and “whether there’s a nail file in the bag.”
“You'd be surprised the sort of things we talk about out there,” Westwood said with a smile. “My favorite comment of hers was from Denmark last year, the first week she caddied for me. I took out a huge divot with an approach shot and, because it was big and soft, she was gingerly walking back with it held at arms’ length.”
“‘What's wrong?’ I asked.
“I hope there's not a worm in this.”
So she makes him smile. Which is a big advantage. And perhaps the biggest benefit any caddie can provide.
But, again, can Westwood really win? Can he emulate the feat of his close friend, Darren Clarke? Eight years ago at Royal St. George's, the Northern Irishman won the Open when supposedly well past his peak and at a time when it was least expected. Not surprisingly, Westwood played a straight bat to any suggestion of karma. And no, there will be no extra feeling of anxiety about what possibly lies ahead. Not yet, anyway.
“There's way too much ground to cover before Sunday night,” he said. “There's a long way to go in this tournament. I've never felt under that much pressure, to be honest. I've always gone out and just done my best. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. And if it doesn't, it doesn't. Whatever happens, I’ll go home and have dinner. I’ll still go on holiday next week. I’ll do the same things. Life won't change.”