ABU DHABI — Almost 10 years have passed since Lee Westwood was, statistically at least, the best golfer on the planet. These days, the 46-year-old is mentioned more as the strong ante-post favorite to be European Ryder Cup captain in 2022 than for anything he does out on the links.
Which makes sense: Westwood, who has 24 European Tour victories to his name, has been a part of more winning teams in the biennial battle with the United States—seven—than any other player. He has amassed 19 points in his nine appearances. And by 2022, he’ll be 49, just about the age most Old World captains have been when taking on the role.
Hang on though. With 18 holes to play in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, a young lad bearing a strong resemblance to the aforementioned Westwood is at the top of the leader board. On 14 under par after a third-round 65, Westwood leads by one shot over Bernd Wiesberger and Francesco Laporta. Matthew Fitzpatrick, not much more than half the leader’s age at 25, sits two shots back, one ahead of a still sprightly 40-year-old, Sergio Garcia.
“I’m pretty excited,” said Westwood, whose seven-under-par day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club included six birdies and an eagle at the par-5 eighth. “It’s always a bonus to be in contention and that’s basically why we come out here. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t play a lot of golf coming into here. So I didn’t know what to expect. To be in the lead with one round to go is a real positive.”
Westwood’s fine score—matched by Wiesberger—was built around some sure-footed putting, a heartening sign for the Englishman. Frustration on the greens, along with his perennial bugbear, chipping, has been the biggest on-course issue for the former World No. 1 for a while now, especially at the sharp end of tournaments. But there was no sign of that as Westwood rolled in a series of putts, all while employing a claw grip he tinkered with just before Christmas.
“I went down to see [putting coach] Phil Kenyon and he said we’ve got to make a ‘distract’ change,” Westwood said. “We decided the claw was my best option. All the figures on the computer in his lab said that was the best strike and the best roll I was getting. Since then, I’ve continued to persevere and it’s gotten more comfortable as time has gone on.”
Still, the biggest test will come over the closing 18 holes. Too often over the last couple of years (although not always, as his November 2018 victory in the Nedbank Challenge shows), Westwood’s putting has let him down in the final analysis. Too often he has come up short on the sort of “must-make” putts that determine winners and losers.
As you’d expect, Westwood was making all the right noises. But with 22 players within six shots on a course that has yielded low numbers on all three days, nothing is certain. Westwood could play well during his fourth trip around the 7,642-yard layout and not win, a fact someone so experienced will know only too well.
“I can’t tell the future.” he said. “I’m just going to go out there and play as well as I can. If that’s good enough, then great. I know I’m talented enough to win the tournament. It’s just a case of applying myself.”
Elsewhere, the award for best line of the day must go to someone other than the leader, however. Asked how long it had taken him to get over being passed by Jon Rahm in the final tournament of 2019 for the top-spot on last season’s Race to Dubai, Wiesberger didn’t have to think for even a second about his response. “A couple of Coronas,” said the Austrian with a smile. Which doesn’t mean he won’t be looking for something better than second place here. Another 65 would be hard to beat, no matter how well Westwood putts.