It is 18 years since a then relatively unknown Englishman pulled the Australian Open victory rug out from under the feet of Australia’s greatest-ever golfer and the then World No. 1 ranked Greg Norman.
Lee Westwood was just 24 years of age when he went head-to-head with Norman over four extra play-off holes to win the coveted Stonehaven Trophy in his second appearance in Australia’s premier event.
There was first stunned silence before genuine applause for the Worksop-born Westwood whose victory at the Metropolitan Club on Melbourne’s famed ‘Sand Belt’ was his fifth triumph on three continents in 1997.
Westwood had won the Malaysian Open earlier that year before adding the Scandinavian Masters title and then capturing the European Tour then season-ending Volvo Masters in Spain, and in the process defeating Ireland’s Padraig Harrington by three shots.
Weeks earlier Westwood made his Ryder Cup debut and then a fortnight before travelling to Melbourne he successfully defended his Sumitomo VISA Taiheiyo Masters crown in Japan and a week later was runner-up to Mark Calcavecchia in the States.
“I had been playing very well in the lead-up to the ’97 Australian Open and to beat Greg in a play-off on his home soil was a very special feeling,” he said.
“I can still remember how good the Metropolitan course was and also just how fast the greens were, and they were the fastest greens I had competed on at that time of my career.
“The organisers had assembled a great field with Vijay Singh, Davis Love 111 along with Darren (Clarke) and of course, Greg.
“I had contested the Australian Open just once before and that was in 1994 at Royal Sydney, and it was my first full year as a professional.
"But after winning my first Tour title in 1996 the next year was very kind to me. I won out in Malaysia, won the Scandinavian Masters as well as finishing top-10 in both the BMW PGA and The Open plus top-20 in the U.S. Open and that also led to qualifying for my first Ryder Cup and to be a part of Seve’s (Ballesteros) side was very special.
“And then towards the later part of ’97 I successfully defended by Taiheiyo Masters title and finished top-five a week earlier in the Dunlop Phoenix Open, and the week before heading to Melbourne I was second in the States in the Sarazen World Open, so you can see I was playing some really good golf when I teed-up at Metropolitan.
“Of course, it was great that year to win the Volvo Masters that was then the tour championship on the European Tour but to win the Australian Open was very special given its stature in golf and also considering the list of winners on the trophy.”
And nearly 20 years on Westwood confessed he can still recall the ‘shock’ in denying Norman and the overwhelming home-town favourite what would have then been a third straight Australian Open title.
“I guess for everyone watching I delivered a big shock when I won the playoff because Greg was the home favourite and everybody was expecting him to win, and not many expecting me to succeed.”
Of course, in the intervening near two decades Westwood has stamped himself one of the greats of the modern game winning a further 39 tournaments around the globe including twice on the PGA Tour along with being crowned European Tour No. 1 in 2000 and 2009.
Westwood has also represented Europe nine times in the Ryder Cup from 1997 to 2014 including being a member of seven winning sides.
However Westwood returns to Australia, and a first Australian Open since his 1997 success looking also seeking a first win in nearly a year since capturing a Asian Tour Thailand Masters.
“It’s been a long time since I won that Australian Open and while I’ve played in a few tournaments in Perth this week be the first time I’ve played in Sydney since ’94, and also my first Australian Open since winning in '97 so I am really looking forward to the week,” he said.
“And again, the organisers seem to have assembled a great field and it’s still a tournament that players want to win, and you only have to see what winning in 2013 did for Rory McIlroy and then last year what the victory did for Jordan (Speith).
“As well, I don’t know much about the Australian Club and while the form is pretty good at the moment, I am just not getting many breaks at present.”