At least for lazy and thoughtless observers of all things golf, the one-word way to define the distinguished career of Lee Westwood has for long enough been obvious: “majorless.”
Which may be one of the most-unfair labels ever attached to one of the game’s elite practitioners. A former world number one, nine times (so far) a Ryder Cup player and a tournament winner wherever he has played – in the United States, Europe, Australia, Africa, Japan and Asia – this 42-year old Englishman has done just about everything. All that is missing is victory in one of the four major championships.
He’s been close, of course. Many times. Since he turned professional in 1993, Westwood has amassed 17 top-ten finishes in golf’s most important events. Nine of those have been top-fives; eight times he has looked up to find only two men in front of him after 72-holes (twice in the Masters and US Open, three times in the Open Championship and once in the USPGA Championship). It is a record of sustained excellence almost anyone would be proud to own.
The last 12-months, however, have seen Westwood struggle, both on and off the course. Understandably distracted by the break-up of his 16-year marriage to wife Laurae, the man from Worksop in the English Midlands arrived in Sydney this week for his second Australian Open appearance – he claimed the Stonehaven Cup on his debut at Metropolitan in 1997 – as low as 56 in the world rankings. It is an unfamiliar position for one so talented, but he has plenty of positive memories to draw on.
“Winning this title 18 years ago is still one of the biggest victories of my career,” he said in his pre-championship press conference. “There was a great feel about the event. Greg Norman was world number one at the time. Vijay Singh played, as did Phil Mickelson. It was a really strong field.
“Greg was a hero of mine growing up so to get into a play-off with him and come through at the fourth extra hole made it a very special week.”
All of which has contrasted greatly with the more recent state of Westwood’s powerful game.
“I’ve struggled a lot this year, there’s been a lot going on,” he admitted. “I’ve had a few weeks where I’ve played okay. But I’ve never been consistent enough. So I’m looking to get some form going before the end of the year and then kick off strongly in 2016.”
An opening round of 70 – marred by an unfortunate double-bogey on his final hole – showed signs of definite promise. And day two brought more of the same; steadiness on a course Westwood had never before played competitively. Under par early after two birdies at the 5th and 7th more than made up for an early bogey at the third, where his approach found the water fronting the putting surface, Westwood found himself rather becalmed on the back nine.
Indeed, that brace of birdies proved to his final dips under par. Coming home, shots slipped away at the 13th and 16th. At the former, a 189-yard uphill 9-iron flew the green by as much as ten yards, the result of an impossible-to-predict “flier” that provoked wry smiles from both Westwood and his faithful caddie, Billy Foster. In the end, it all added up to 72, leaving the pair on level par at the halfway mark.
“I played alright,” was the immediate verdict before Westwood landed a not-so subtle dig at his long-time bagman. “And it certainly wasn’t the most fun day Billy has had on the golf course.
“Overall though, I’m reasonably happy with how things went. It felt like I hit the ball pretty well and I holed out nicely when I had to. It was just one of those nondescript rounds where not much happened out of the ordinary. I can still win from seven behind. If I have a good weekend I will have a chance.
“A lot can happen here. There are all-sorts out there. But I like the way the course plays. It isn’t ‘hit it in the rough and hack it out.’ You always have a chance to recover if you are good enough. Which is how golf should be.”