A Star Search
Westwood at Workshop Golf Club.
A month after the disappointment of the Masters, Lee Westwood was warming up for the final round of the Players Championship, leading by one shot with 18 holes to play, just as he had in the year's first major. Chubby Chandler, Westwood's agent and running mate, sized up the moment. "It's a bit like Augusta," Chandler said. "If he shoots 66 or 76, we're still going to have a beer and a laugh tonight."
Westwood closed with a 74 to finish tied for fourth at Sawgrass, but again he graciously faced the media. "Disappointed, but not something I'm going to pull my hair out over," Westwood said with the class everyone saw after he lost to Phil Mickelson at the Masters.
In June, Westwood won the St. Jude Classic in Memphis, and after another major runner-up at the British Open, Westwood was No. 3 in the world and perhaps only a win away from surpassing Tiger Woods as No. 1.
Given how far Westwood has climbed after bottoming out at 266th in 2003, he appreciates the love he's getting from U.S. galleries lately. Through it all he stays humble, without even a hint of superstar arrogance.
You've gotten a lot of TV time this year thanks to 54-hole leads at the Masters and Players Championship and winning in Memphis. Are you getting noticed more in public?
I actually get recognized more in the States than in England, and people in the States have been great. I could get drunk most nights with people who've offered to buy me a beer. Some nights you just have to say, "No, I'm not drinking. I've got work to do."
Several European players have chosen to live and raise their families in the United States, but you're still living in your hometown of Worksop, England. Why?
I like it there. It's where I'm from, where my friends are, and our kids are in school and very settled there. My daughter, Poppy, is 5, going on 25. And my son, Sam, is 9 and a Manchester City fan, which is unfortunate because I'm a Nottingham Forest fan.
Are they playing sports like you did as a kid?
Poppy likes princesses, ponies and pink. Sam likes climbing, and he plays cricket, football and rugby at school. He'll play golf if I go out there with him, and he hits it a long way for his age, but I don't force it.
You don't need to go far to hit balls. Tell me about the practice facility at your home.
I bought 51 acres in 2000 and turned some of it into a driving range behind the house. It has bunkers, a green and tees at both ends so I can hit in both directions. It's the only place I practice when I'm home. The turf's fantastic, and the greens are up to USGA specs. I have a pot bunker with links sand, as well as a more conventional American bunker. There's also a covered driving bay on wheels for the predictable English weather.
Who picks the range balls?
I still do that myself.
You spend 10 to 12 weeks a year in the U.S. What are the best things about America?
The opportunities. And from a golf standpoint the facilities are fantastic.
I don't think people from America travel around the world enough. They get into a comfort zone and don't experience the rest of the world.
You had to cancel a spring vacation because of the volcano in Iceland, but you made up for it after the British. What did you do?
My wife, Laurae, and I and five friends rented a 90-foot Sunseeker [yacht] and cruised down to St. Tropez and up toward Monaco. The weather was spectacular, and it was very relaxing.
__While you're out there, do you ever stop and think, I can't believe what I've done in my life? __
Like how did this all happen? You remember how lucky you are. As a golfer you get to go to some of the best places in the world, but so often it's just airport, golf course and hotel. It's nice to kick back and look around.
You've had chances to win several of the last 10 majors. How frustrating does it get?
Well, sometimes there's not much of a difference, is there, between winning and second. It's a razor's edge, and people keep asking me about it. Well, I'm not going to all of a sudden give up on it, am I? People are very quick to put you down. And that's the advantage of going through a poor spell. You become mentally strong if you come back from a down time like that.
You're talking about your fall from No. 4 to No. 266 in golf's world ranking. Did you ever think about walking away?
Yeah, I did. I had moments where I was losing the will to practice and wasn't getting any better. I was working really hard and not getting anywhere. I found it very demoralizing to go out on the range and not improving; in fact, getting worse. I tried to change a few things technically, but it didn't work for me.
What would you have done if you left golf?
I don't know. I don't like to think about it. I'm glad I hung in. When you're playing poorly, it teaches you a lot of lessons, and you learn more about what makes you tick and what kind of person you are.
What brought you back?
Determination to get back to where I was: top 10 in the world. I'm not one to give up. I've always been a fighter.
You came out of it a better man, it seems.
Absolutely. That's why when people ask if it's frustrating to finish so high but not win a major I say, "No, it's not." What's frustrating is to not know if your golf ball is going left or right. So to come back from that and to be a better player than I was almost gives me more pleasure than any of the wins.
Is it true you didn't start playing golf until your teens?
That's right. I got bored of fishing on summer holidays, so when I was nearly 13 I followed my dad to the golf course. Within a year I won the county championship and was the best golfer in the county under the age of 18.
What did your parents do for a living?
Dad was a math teacher, and Mom was a chiropodist.
Forgive me, but what's a chiropodist?
It's someone who works with the feet. Treats corns, not just nails. I've probably got the best feet on tour. If I've got a corn on the little toe, she'll treat it. I'll kid her that her eyes aren't what they used to be. It's never a good thing winding a woman up when she's got a scalpel near your toes.
Did you get any of your father's abilities in math?
I got an A in math, but I got a lot of tutoring at home. There was a lot of pressure to get an A. I was in a class of 29, and there were 27 A's and two B's. If I'd been one of those two B's, I'd have been in trouble.
You were a good athlete as a kid. What other sports did you play before golf?
I was a good footballer and a good runner.
A good runner?
You sound surprised. I haven't always been quite so chunky. I was quite thin when I was 11, 12.
What did Gary Player say at the 1998 Masters that prompted you to get in shape?
He told the press that I was fat and needed to be fitter. And he was right. I interpreted it as I needed to lose weight, but really I needed to be stronger.
What's the secret to controlling your weight?
Everything in moderation. I'm rather keen on food. I find it hard to diet. I've never gone in the gym for weight loss. The weight's come off, but only as a consequence of working out. I work out for strength, and I've never counted calories. I don't need to run 26 miles; I need to walk seven.
And when you're done with those seven?
I like a beer, a glass of red wine and a good steak, like anyone else.
You're about to play in your seventh Ryder Cup. What's your best memory from the first six?
Probably the first one I ever played, in 1997.
And the most painful memory?
The last day at Brookline , losing a big lead there. That's one everybody on the European team felt we should've won. Sometimes you have to accept when you're beaten by a better side. As the U.S. was spraying champagne and celebrating, we were downstairs in our team room. We weren't wasting our champagne. We were drinking it.
No wonder American golf fans offer you beers in the bar. Do you have a favorite golf joke you like to tell?
I can't tell you because they're all dirty. Come to the pub with me, and I'll tell you a few.
Mom and Dad (left) shadowed Westwood during a British Open practice round at St. Andrews. Westwood waves.
Photos: Dom Furore; Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images