Man on a mission: Having reduced his body fat by almost half since 2006 with vigorous work at his home gym, Westwood believes he is closer than ever to winning a major.
There was never one great moment of realization, nor was there a spontaneous, blinding flash of recognition. But even without looking in the mirror, Lee Westwood knew.
"I was overweight," he says now of his late-2006 self. "In fact, I was way too heavy. I looked around at the guys at the top of the rankings -- Tiger, Ernie, Vijay, Phil, Retief -- and they were all big fellas, all of them strong with big shoulders. Then I looked at the courses we were increasingly being asked to play. They were getting longer, and the rough was getting thicker. So I had to make myself bigger and stronger and more capable of competing with those guys on those types of courses."
And so he has. Flash forward more than three years and the same Lee Westwood is not the same. Following a workout regimen designed to see him "peak" at each of the four Grand Slam events, the 37-year-old Englishman has reduced his body fat by almost half -- from 35 percent to 19 percent -- and, despite replacing so much fat with heavier muscle, is 22 pounds lighter. Physically at least, he is a man on a major championship mission that will continue at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open.
In weeks where he is not playing tournament golf, Westwood typically starts his three-or-four-times-a-week, two-hour-long gym sessions with 30 minutes of "cardio," warming up his muscles and getting him ready for what is to follow. And, at this time of year especially, a few more minutes are spent performing rotational squats while standing on "wobble cushions," with emphasis on his balance and the stability of his knee and ankle joints. As his fitness trainer Steve McGregor points out, "not every lie on the golf course is even."
The next hour is where the heavy lifting takes place -- literally.
"The key for Lee is power generation in both the upper and lower body," continues McGregor, who also works with, among others, England's Birmingham City Football Club and the NBA's New York Knicks. "To that end," says McGregor, "he is currently doing a lot of Olympic-type lifting. He is 'power-cleaning' maybe 80 kilos [about 176 pounds], and he is 'power-squatting' maybe twice that much. It's all about replicating the explosive effort Lee wants to make in his golf swing.
"The last half hour or so is spent working on any specific issues he may have," adds McGregor. "Normally, that is his joints. If he has been hitting a lot of balls, his wrists can be sore. So he will do some dumbbell work; bicep curls are things he does a lot, as well as little exercises to help the rotation in his wrists."
That exhausting program is what Westwood has come to know as his "power phase." "The first time Steve put Lee through all of his tests, he said that his maximum point of velocity was occurring some way short of the ball," says Westwood's manager, Andrew (Chubby) Chandler. "Now that maximum occurs right at impact, which has made him longer off the tee. Steve has been a major part in Lee's rise the last three years."
On weeks where he is competing, Westwood follows a lighter maintenance schedule, or, at majors, takes a complete break from the gym. "We have to be careful," McGregor says. "If Lee were to do these exercises 12 months of the year, it wouldn't be long before he was picking up repetition-type injuries. That's why his workout schedule -- which tends to change every eight weeks or so -- is so closely tied to his tournament schedule. The aim is to make him a better golfer, not an Olympic athlete."
Even if Westwood isn't going to be running or jumping for medals any time soon, all of the above has led to a marked change in the six-time Ryder Cupper's lifestyle. Where once Westwood was a self-confessed slob whose off-course existence was exercise-free, he is now, if not a fitness fanatic, a lot more mindful of his eating and drinking habits. He is certainly aware of the benefits.
"Having more muscle now, I'm also more powerful," he says. "I'm more flexible, too, at least in the areas where I need to be more flexible. And I'm stronger. I hit the ball farther. I feel like I have a much more athletic swing. I find it easier to make more economical movements within my swing. I can keep it shorter and tighter when I need to. I just feel like I've got more control. There isn't a shot I can play now that I couldn't before. But I'm better at everything, to varying degrees. I've fine-tuned everything rather than making one big change.
"And," he adds, "because so much of what I do is designed to strengthen my joints -- shoulders, wrists and knees -- I am a lot less prone to injury. I tend to break down a lot less these days."
Indeed, it can easily be argued that Westwood has so far only been revving up. A decade removed from his reign as Europe's No. 1 player -- and No. 4 in the world -- and seven years after he bottomed out at 266th in the World Ranking, the man from Worksop in the English Midlands is statistically the third-best golfer on the planet and, based on his recent record in major championships and other leading events, a strong favorite to break his Grand Slam drought at Pebble Beach, where he finished T-5 in 2000, the last time the U.S. Open was there.
"I've always been shocked that he fell as far as he did," says former Ryder Cup player Andrew Coltart, whose sister Laurae is married to Westwood. "I can only imagine how hard that was mentally. To get back to where he was -- and even higher -- is a credit to his mental strength. It is more impressive to do it for a second time. First time around your [bottom] never twitches, but the second time around it's that much harder because you know all that can go wrong."
Since missing out on the Tiger Woods-Rocco Mediate playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open by a shot, Westwood has racked up three more top-three finishes in majors, won the European Tour's "Race to Dubai" with a performance noted instructor Bob Torrance calls "as good as a man can play," and finished T-4 at last month's Players, where he led with a round to play. It is a run of form that has been both enormously impressive and, because it lacks that maiden major victory, potentially crushing in its disappointments. Only potentially, though.
"Lee's mind is his greatest asset," contends European Tour pro Mark Foster, another Worksop native who has known Westwood since childhood. "That is why I don't see these near-misses affecting him too much. I'm sure he has been disappointed, but I know he feels he can win at least one. He's a great bet at any U.S. Open, but his game is so good now he contends everywhere. He could win any of the four majors."
Westwood's caddie, Billy Foster, also pooh-poohs the idea that his boss' various brushes with ultimate victory have permanently damaged his psyche. In last year's British Open at Turnberry, Westwood missed the Stewart Cink-Tom Watson playoff by a shot. A month later he was T-3 in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine. And, most recently, at Augusta this year, only an inspired last round by Phil Mickelson denied him the green jacket.
Westwood is striving to close better at the majors
than he did at the 2009 British Open (below), where
he bogeyed three of the last four holes.
"He's handled coming close but not winning very well," says Foster, who previously worked with Westwood's close friend, Darren Clarke. "He's a level-headed bloke who works hard and knows how these things can go sometimes. Look at the Masters. Phil shot 67 and only just beat Lee. But Lee shot a 72-hole score that would have won 17 of the last 20 Masters. You can't get too worried by that."
True, but even Westwood admits that his loss at Turnberry took some getting over. He bogeyed three of the last four holes, including the 72nd, where, thinking Watson (playing behind him) was sure to make par and so he had to make a birdie, Westwood rushed his long birdie putt 10 feet past and missed the return.
"That was the most disappointing," he concedes. "I feel like I let that one go. It was mine to win. And yes, it was difficult afterward. I was lucky to have my kids there for me on the Sunday night [Sam, 9, and Poppy, 5]. They helped me keep things in perspective and get me back to reality.
"But I still feel as though I was unlucky. A thousand people out of a thousand would have looked at where Watson's ball was on the last fairway and thought they had to make a 3 to tie. So in that sense I have no regrets. I don't do regrets anyway. I have no time for that. I did what I thought was right at the time. I had a go, and I didn't win. End of story."
Still, continued failure at the highest level has inevitably led many observers to search for reasons why Westwood is still waiting for his first major success. In that respect, most fingers are pointed at his short game, specifically his pitching and chipping.
"People make too much of Lee's short game," insists swing coach Pete Cowen, who coached Westwood from 1995 to 2000, then returned to his side in 2005 -- not coincidentally the two most productive periods of his career. "Everyone has a relative weakness. Mickelson's is that he slashes it all over the place with the driver. So what? Everyone has a weakness. But I don't hear too many people harping on about Phil's driving."
Westwood is weary of the criticism. "I am tired of hearing about my short game," he says. "It has improved a lot. People say it isn't as good as Phil Mickelson's. But then whose is? Where I was maybe a 4 out of 10, I've reached 6½. And I'd like to get to 8. When I do, that will make all the difference."
The little shots then, represent the final piece in Westwood's major jigsaw, a puzzle that first came apart as far back as 1999, when he led the Masters going into the back nine Sunday.
"I definitely panicked at Augusta that year," he admits. "I just lost my way. But I learned from that, and this year was very different. I'm entirely comfortable playing in the last group on the last day in any major. I certainly don't feel out of place.
"People ask me about Padraig Harrington, who had a few high finishes before he won his first major. But I don't compare myself to him or anyone else," says Westwood. "Other people do. But I don't. I just go along my own merry little way in my own little world."
Still, for all his protestations, there is little doubt that a first major victory later this month would lay to rest a few demons. As things stand, Westwood's career can go in one of two directions. If at least one major title continues to elude him, the danger is that he will be remembered in the "good but not great" class that includes Colin Montgomerie and Peter Oosterhuis -- both fine players who won multiple Orders of Merit and many important tournaments, but never one of the four biggest ones. Then again, the feeling here is that Westwood is better than either of those former Ryder Cup stalwarts. If he wins one major, he is likely to at least match Harrington in lifting three sooner rather than later. Whatever happens, as always, the Englishman is making all the right noises.
"I loved Pebble Beach the first time I saw it," Westwood says. "It suits my game. I feel comfortable there. I'm looking forward to it. All my best U.S. Open finishes have come on the West Coast -- at Olympic, Torrey Pines and Pebble. I seem to putt well on the greens they have out there.
"But I'll go there thinking 'fairways and greens.' At any U.S. Open you know that you don't have to rush out of the blocks. You just have to play your way steadily into the event. Being there in the mix going into the back nine on Sunday -- that's the secret to major championships. Besides," he adds, "I've proved over the last few majors that I'm ready."
Make that fit and ready.
__Good times, close calls: A six-time Ryder Cupper, Westwood enjoyed Europe's 2006 win with Clarke (left). At the 2008 U.S. Open (right), he finished only one stroke out of the Woods-Mediate playoff. __