Evening Standard

Balancing act: Lee Westwood is aware of the strengths of his rivals but says there is no point worrying about them as golfer must focus on his own game. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Lee Westwood would be entirely justified in feeling that the wheels of time are remorselessly grinding against him.

The 38-year-old is still waiting to win his first Major. He lost his No1 ranking to Luke Donald in May and, at the US Open three weeks later, a tied third place was small consolation when the victor, Rory McIlroy, was only 22.

Yet, as he prepares to take a tilt at the season’s final Major, the US PGA Championship in Atlanta starting a week on Thursday, Westwood has no fears that the young guns are threatening him.

Calmly sipping his cappuccino at a Hertfordshire hotel, he sounds genuine when he says: “Rory’s arrival doesn’t fill me with any apprehension. There’s no point worrying about what other people are doing, especially in golf.

“You’re the only one in control over your golf ball. It’s not like tennis: you’re hitting a shot and somebody’s hitting it back at you. People mature at different stages and I feel I’m learning a lot.

“So it doesn’t really bother me that I’m 38 and still haven’t won a Major. I feel I’m a young 38. Something could switch on and I could win four out of the next 10 Majors.”

But for that to happen Westwood, who has come tantalisingly close by finishing inside the top three five times in his last eight Majors, admits he will need luck and a better putter.

“You need a few different things to go your way, the right breaks at the right time. There isn’t a massive difference between Rory, Luke Donald or even Tiger [Woods] and me. What’s let me down over the last couple of years is my putting in the Majors.

“Even when I finished third at the US Open a few weeks back, I didn’t putt very well, nor in the last round of last year’s Masters when [Phil] Mickelson won, nor last year’s Open at Turnberry, where I came second. The margins in golf are a fine line. The difference between not being in the play-off and having a chance of winning a Major in two of those tournaments was a quarter of a shot a day.”

As for this year’s Open at Royal St George’s, where he missed the cut, he admits his putting was so bad that: “If I had closed my eyes and used one hand, I might have putted better.”

He laughs when I suggest that perhaps, when putting, he is thinking of his favourite team, Nottingham Forest. “No, that would completely scramble it. I have to sit down, analyse. Yes, it could be a mental barrier.”

What he will not do is repeat his mistake of 10 years ago.

“Just because I keep getting close and don’t win these Majors, I must not panic,” says the world No2. “I went through this stage in 2001. I felt technically I wasn’t swinging it properly and I started to panic; went to see too many different people, took on too much advice. I looked for quick fixes and didn’t really take responsibility for my own game. I didn’t carry on doing the things that had got me to where I was.

“Now, I’m obviously playing well enough to have a chance, I’m not quite finishing it off. So I need to keep doing the same things, maybe just change something and that will be the difference between third and winning.”

But, for all his agonies at Majors, Westwood never has sleepless nights about his game: “No, not at all. I don’t lie in bed thinking I should have done this. I do not regret decisions that I make at certain times because I always do what I think is the right thing at the time. I don’t watch videos of myself very often. I like to get away from it when I’m not playing. I enjoy trying to beat everybody but I don’t enjoy so much the stuff that goes with it. I mean, while we’re having a nice conversation here, the interviews and TV stuff, is something I would rather not do.”

Westwood attributes this level headedness to the grounding he received as a boy. “It goes back to the way I’ve been brought up. My parents are very hard workers and so am I. If they see me getting too big for my boots, they’ll pull me to one side. My mum can do it without even saying anything. She’s always been able to give me a certain look so I know I’ve done something wrong. Nobody else has ever been able to do that.”

It was his father, a maths teacher, who introduced him to golf. “My dad taught me at school for four years so we shared the same holidays. He liked fishing but I used to hate sitting on the riverbank. So he said one day, ‘Well let’s go and have a game of golf.’ Me and my dad started playing golf the very same day.

Image courtesy of Evening Standard

“I am the first in my family to play golf, so I’m sort of learning from scratch. We weren’t poor, but we were by no means well off. I come from quite a working-class area, Worksop is a mining town. When I started playing golf, most people in our area regarded it as an old man’s game.”

Westwood’s initial ambitions were suitably modest. “I didn’t think I could get to the highest level, maybe a professional in a shop or something like that. My parents had a few savings and, between the age of 16 and 18, they allowed me to play amateur golf full-time. So I practised all the time and then, at 19, turned pro.”

For all his contributions to Europe’s Ryder Cup wins, where he has a better record than Tiger Woods, it was ending Woods’s five-year reign as No1 last October that meant the most to Westwood. It made him the first Briton since Nick Faldo in 1994 to be top of golf’s pile and he says: “Whenever you can say you’re the best in the world at something it is a very special moment.”

On Thursday, Westwood will play in the Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio, where Woods will return to golf after two months out with knee and Achilles injuries.

During his lay-off, Woods has dropped to No28 in the world and the 14-times Major champion has yet to win a tournament since his high-profile fall from grace at the end of 2009.

Westwood thinks Woods still has a chance of becoming a force again and says: “I can see him coming back [to the top]. I would not put it past him. But recent events have made all the players look at him in a different light and think this guy’s beatable. Whenever you’ve shown that you’re vulnerable, people don’t look at you the same way. So that might have an effect. The lads that are coming through now obviously watched him say in 2000 when he really was at his prime.

“The likes of Rory, he was 10 or 12 years old when Tiger was thrashing us. They weren’t competing against him. They haven’t got that sort of intimidation factor, so they’re just starting off from a clean slate.”

And Westwood generously says of the Ulsterman that: “Rory on his game is probably as good as Tiger. But he still doesn’t quite do it often enough yet. But you’ve got to give him a break, he’s only 22.”

Woods’s problems have made golf more open but Westwood cannot decide whether the game has benefited. He says: “Tiger dominated the sport and now there’s greater variety. People turn up not knowing what to expect. Look at the Majors. There are a lot of first-time winners. There’s nobody dominating. Whether that’s good, I’m not sure. Whatever sport you talk about, people like it when there are dominant champions like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in tennis. But people like change as well.”

As for whether his own fortunes will change at the Atlanta Athletic Club, he cannot be sure. “The last time I played there, it was very difficult. It was a hard golf course.”

But, whether he breaks his Major duck there or not, Westwood has another great ambition: to represent Britain in the Olympics. Golf will be part of the Rio Games in 2016 and Westwood admits he has had a change of heart about the issue.

He says: “When they first suggested that golf would become an Olympic sport, I wasn’t a fan. Daley Thompson was a hero of mine when I was growing up and to me an Olympics was about winning medals. Golf is all about winning Majors. But then I spoke to a few people and they explained to me what the impact of having golf in the Olympics could have on the game. I then watched the opening ceremony: Nadal walking in with a Spanish flag, Federer walking in with his Swiss flag, Kobe Bryant with the American flag. They were all so proud. It’s something that’s never happened in golf.”

Westwood will be 43 by the time Rio comes along. “I’d love to represent Britain in Rio. That is if I am playing. I don’t want to turn up to a tournament if I haven’t got a chance of winning.”


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